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Blizzard blankets high Plains

Colorado's governor declares a state of emergency as freeways and the Denver airport are forced to close.

December 21, 2006|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — A blizzard hammered the high Plains on Wednesday, dumping more than a foot of snow in Colorado, knocking a small plane out of the sky in Wyoming, and shutting airports, schools, malls and hundreds of miles of highway on the brink of one of the busiest travel weekends of the year.

About 1,000 flights were canceled, stranding travelers at Denver International Airport, which shut down for only the third time in 12 years.

"Mother Nature sometimes wins," airport spokesman Chuck Cannon said. "This is not your run-of-the-mill snowstorm."

The slow-moving blizzard is expected to linger until midday today, and airport officials hope to reopen after it departs. But travelers with plans to head through Denver were urged to check with their airlines before departing.

The flight disruptions extended beyond Denver. In southeastern Wyoming, a small plane on a contract flight for the U.S. Postal Service had to make an emergency landing in a wheat field near Pine Bluffs because of the weather, local police said.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens declared a state of emergency and called out the state's National Guard, which began patrolling the highways in search of stranded motorists.

The state's main arteries were shut down -- nearly all 300 miles of Interstate 25 between the Wyoming and New Mexico state lines was closed, as was 150 miles of Interstate 70 from Denver to Kansas. Elsewhere, I-80 between western Nebraska and Cheyenne, Wyo., was closed.

"There are crashes everywhere," Colorado State Trooper Gilbert Mares said. "People are getting stuck, people are getting stranded, and we're closing roads as fast as we can."

What made the storm particularly disruptive were the high winds screaming down from the Rocky Mountains, scouring the snow-covered Plains and creating whiteout conditions for hundreds of miles.

"The winds are blowing so hard it's basically cutting visibility down to zero," said Bob Wilson, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. He said motorists were simply stopping in the middle of highways because they couldn't see out their windshields.

The blizzard shut down the U.S. Postal Service in the Denver area on one of the busiest mail days of the year. Malls, restaurants and boutiques closed by midday as potential Christmas shoppers were trapped inside their houses.

"The positive side is we still have four shopping days before Christmas," said Hugh Crawford, senior property manager at FlatIron Crossing, a mall near Boulder, Colo.

The sprawling storm began rumbling across the Southwest on Tuesday, dumping snow on the mountains of southwestern Colorado and snarling traffic in New Mexico and West Texas. The forecasts became increasingly dire through the day as the heart of the storm pinwheeled northeast toward the densely populated Plains beneath the Front Range of the Rockies.

At Murdoch's Ranch & Home Supply in Cheyenne, customers began to pour in Tuesday afternoon, scooping up horse blankets, coats and de-icers, said cashier Brittany Belford.

"It was just like getting slammed nonstop," she said as customers continued to stream in Wednesday. "And now we've got snow blowing pretty much everywhere."

It's snow that the parched Plains of Colorado desperately needed. Until this week, 2006 was on track to be the driest year since 1872, said Bob Koopmeiners, a National Weather Service forecaster in Boulder.

"It's a good storm for us," he said. "It's got a nice track, and it's perfect for giving us snow."

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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