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Remembering the deadly blizzard that struck Colorado 25 years ago

The October 1997 storm dumped up to 52 inches of snow in some parts of Colorado
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Posted at 8:16 AM, Oct 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-24 10:16:50-04

DENVER — Monday marks the 25th anniversary of an epic blizzard that had parts of Colorado and the Denver metro area in a deadly grip for three days in 1997.

The October storm dumped up to 52 inches in some parts of Colorado and is blamed for taking the lives of six people across the Front Range and Eastern Plains. It also stranded thousands of motorists, many of which had to be rescued by the National Guard.

When the storm was over, snow totals ranged from 14 to 31 inches across the Denver metro area with 2 to 4 feet in the foothills. Over 100 cars were abandoned on Pena Boulevard as 4,000 people sought shelter at Denver International Airport.

Temperatures had been in the 70s and 80s the week leading up to the snowstorm, according to the National Weather Service, but quickly plummeted to well below freezing as the storm moved in. Blizzard conditions lasted in Colorado Springs from 9 p.m. Friday through 6 p.m. Saturday, the NWS reported.

Above is a hand drawn surface map of the blizzard when it was strengthening Saturday morning the 25th. Close together lines of equal pressure produced blizzard winds (sustained and frequent gusts well above 35 mph), as air temperatures plummeted to the mid- to upper teens.

The fatalities occurred in El Paso, Otero, Pueblo, and Bent counties. Three people in El Paso County died from carbon monoxide poisoning after waiting for help to come in their snowbound vehicles for over 24 hours, according to the National Weather Service. Two people froze to death — an elderly woman in Otero County and man hunting in Bent County — and a man was killed in a vehicle accident in Pueblo during the blizzard.

Other people were injured when roofs and gas station canopies collapsed under the weight of the snow that fell over those three days. Power outages occurred in many parts of the state, causing businesses to close and the economy to take a major hit. Roads and highways were shut down, and only emergency traffic was allowed.

Scenes of the October 1997 blizzard in Denver

The brutality of the 1997 blizzard not only impacted people but livestock, too. The storm caused a widespread die-off of range cattle, estimated to be around 20,000. But hay drops carried out by the Army and National Guard saved an untold number of cattle.

The NWS called the 1997 October blizzard a rare event.

"October blizzards are rare indeed, and the severity of that blizzard any time of year even rarer," the NWS report said.

The 1997 storm was caused by a closed area of low pressure over Utah that slowly drifted along the southern border of Colorado. The low pressure stalled out near the Texas panhandle and tapped into moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. The result was an extended period with snowfall rates of 1-2 inches per hour.