Cleanup continues around the county; insurance companies registering numerous wind-related claims this week
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Local residents continued to clean up downed trees and damaged homes early this week after winds of up to 115 mph raked the area late Saturday night.
Weather experts said it’s unusual to have such high winds across much of the state at the same time. The strong gusts are not unprecedented, but they’re often confined to a small part of the state.
Some of the most significant damage was reported from the Gold Hill neighborhood near Summit High School, where one home reportedly lost its roof, and many others had siding stripped way and lost shingles to gusts equal to winds found during a Category 3 hurricane.
“It was like a war zone up there,” said one resident, describing the scene Sunday morning, when scored of uprooted and broken trees littered the area.
Several local insurance agencies said they received numerous windstorm-related claims Monday, and were expecting more to come in during the next few days. In general, wind damage should be covered under most general homeowners insurance policies, said a representative with Arrow Insurance Management in Frisco.
Forest Service officials said Monday they hadn’t yet heard of any widespread blow-downs, but there may be parts of the backcountry that were hit hard by the storm. A wind microburst several years ago knocked over several hundred acres of lodgepole pines along the slopes of the Gore Range.
“I’ve been looking at downed trees from Blue River to Three Peaks,” said Jake Fiala, with Alpine Tree Services, describing serious damage to the Prospector Village neighborhood up in the Wildernest area.
Fiala said the complex lost most of its roof shingles. In other places, tree branches broke through roofs and caused some structural damage, he said.
The wind also caused problems for Arapahoe Basin on Sunday, according to chief operating officer Alan Henceroth, who described the issues in detail on his blog. The area was able to keep the lifts running on an auxiliary power system, but base area and other on-mountain services were affected by the outage, Henceroth said, adding that the outage may have been the result of trees falling on powerlines in the North Fork Valley, where mountain pine beetles have killed many trees.
As a result of the beetle epidemic, other trees have also become more susceptible to blow-downs. Fiala said many of the downed trees that he observed were big, isolated spruce trees that previously were protected from winds by thick stands of lodgepole.
Fiala said his company was asked to remove most of the remaining trees from around Prospector Village to prevent additional damage from future weather events.
He said some homeowners are aware that standing trees pose a potential threat to their residences, but some are reluctant to remove them. He said the issue is complicated by the fact that insurance companies generally won’t pay for upfront removal of the trees, which would be quite a bit less expensive than paying for the damage done when a tree falls on a house.
In any case, Alpine Tree Services and other similar companies are available to inspect properties, assess potential risks and remove trees before they blow over.
Winds in Colorado gust to around 100 mph on a fairly regular basis, about once every couple of years, according to Boulder-based National Weather Service meteorologist David Barjenbruch.
Barjenbruch said the Colorado storm began as a break-away piece from an intense low pressure system that raked the west Alaska coast last week. As it moved into the northern Rockies, the winds intensified.
“It was a little unusual in how widespread the high winds were,” he said. “There was a concentrated core of stronger winds with this storm right at mountain-top level.”
Local topography also may have helped intensify the storm in some parts of the state, as winds tend to speed up as they move downslope — that’s why high winds are common along the Front Range foothills, he explained.
In this storm, the jet stream was not a major factor. In fact, the winds were higher at mountain-top levels than higher in the atmosphere, Barjenbruch said, adding that pilots flying over the Rockies during the storm were in calmer weather than high country residents.
The strong winds were caused by an extremely tight pressure gradient, which means the center of a high pressure area and the center of a low pressure area were very close together. In general, air moves from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure to create wind.
In this case, the flow over Colorado was tightly kinked, increasing the pressure like a kink in garden hose, according to Brian Lazar, a forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, describing the upper air circulation as a “river of air with pinches and kinks.”
“It tends to move faster when it’s narrow, like a river going through a canyon,” he said. During this storm, the kink in the flow encompassed much of the state, creating the widespread windy conditions.
- Check this Colorado wind speed map.
- Colorado’s highest-ever recorded wind gust came in at 201 mph atop 14,259-foot Longs Peak in 1998.
- In 1971, the city of Boulder recorded a wind gust at 147 mph.
- The strongest wind gust ever recorded was 318 mph from an F5 tornado that struck Oklahoma City on May 3 1999.
- For many years, New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington held the record for the highest sustained wind speed, at 231 mph during a storm in April 1934. But recently, meteorologists reported that Typhoon Olivia, which moved through Barrow Island off the coast of Australia in 1996, managed to generate winds of 253 miles per hour.
- The new record was confirmed by the World Meteorological Organization, a branch of the United Nations that studies global climate patterns and changing weather conditions. The Barrow Island record was uncovered largely by accident while examining data from the typhoon.
- The 115 mph gust near Frisco would put the winds into Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. Sustained Category 3 winds can result in “structural damage to small residences and utility buildings with a minor amount of curtainwall failures. Mobile homes are destroyed,” according to the National Weather Service.
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