Mudslide Strands 100 Cars Along Colorado Highway, Experts Say There Will Be More

The 2014 Oso, Washington mudslide destroyed 40 homes and killed 43. Image: The National Guard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Colorado transportation officials have closed a 46-mile stretch of Interstate 70 following severe mudslides that stranded more than 100 people in their vehicles overnight on July 29th. Residents of Glenwood Canyon, a critical gateway between the Rocky Mountains and the West coast, are coping with the fallout as wildfire smoke continues to dominate their skies.

Now, climate experts warn that as wildfires become more frequent and severe, mudslides will follow, threatening crucial infrastructure.  

Why This Matters: When it rains, it pours. Wildfire damage is directly linked to increased mudslides; when fires burn off vegetation from the forest floor, the soil beneath is left dusty and barren, inhibiting its ability to absorb water.

If heavy rains come, the damaged soil cannot hold water and instead mobilizes. Mudslides and landslides can range from inconvenient to deadly, but larger fires mean more vulnerable acreage. Experts say that as the cycle of drought, rising temperatures, and fire becomes the new normal for the American West, rains, once regarded as healing, will bring with them new dangers to infrastructure and human lives.

A Slippery Slope: Colorado’s recent mudslides have proven devastating for cross-country supply chains and residents alike.

  • The 46-mile closure between Denver and Glenwood Springs forces travelers and truckers to take a 250-mile detour through Wyoming.
  • Each day, thousands of commercial vehicles make their way through the Glenwood Canyon pass, and the disruption is causing chaos.

This is a ripple effect because we’re not getting the truck back until the next day. … It takes it out of sync in terms of those drivers, and effectively, you need more drivers and more trucks,” said Greg Fulton, the president and CEO of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association. He says that the domino effect could lead to gas and food shortages, late deliveries, and price jumps.

Meanwhile, local businesses are taking a hit. Much of the community relies on nature tourism and recreation like whitewater rafting for a living, but if people can’t get into town, local economies take a big hit. “We get a lot of RV traffic coming through. A lot of them stay overnight on a property here. They’re all canceled,” said Max Vogelman, who co-owns the local Stoneyard Distillery.

Experts say that areas like Glenwood Canyon are experiencing an increased risk of mudslides. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey mapped landslide vulnerability in Southern California and found that post-fire slides are now expected every year. Major landslide events could occur every ten years. “In this case, it’s really the compounding and cascading effect of an active fire season last year, followed by heavy precipitation events this year that came together to produce these big effects on I-70,” said Andy Hoell, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis is now calling for climate resiliency in federal policy, saying, “We need to look at things like fire risk mitigation, retaining walls, in a new and different way given the reality that we face on the ground in Colorado.”

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