Crazy weather in early June has left some lasting impressions, partly because of a weather event called a “derecho.” Parts of southeastern Utah and western Colorado received more than an inch of rain that came in a hurry June 6 with mean black clouds and damaging wind gusts and hail.
The word derecho is Spanish for “straight.”
Such events generally involve long-duration, fairly linear windstorms stretching at least 250 miles, resulting in straight-line wind damage. Such storms are rare in western Colorado, and meteorologists say they’re not aware of a previous derecho that continued across the Continental Divide, as the June 6 one did. A report in the Grand Junction Sentinel described the storm as starting out as multiple, individual super-cell storms that produced heavy rain and hail in southeast Utah before transitioning into a single, wind-producing system that moved northeast across Colorado and on to South Dakota, said Scott Stearns, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction.
Grand Mesa resident Mike Gauthier has worked in the weather business over the years and has seen some extreme weather, but when he described the event that hit his cabin, he said, “It was just nuts up there … It was a wild event, man.”
The wind was part of a rare storm system that not only brought down trees on area national forest lands, but also caused damage elsewhere in Utah, Colorado and other states. Some of the damage on local forest trails in Colorado likely will take all summer to clean up, officials say.
In the course of only 10 or 20 seconds, wind that Gauthier thinks exceeded 100 mph roared past the cabins that make up the Grand Mesa Resort Co. community, a private in-holding in Grand Mesa National Forest. The gust uprooted some trees and snapped others, leaving them lying across roads, and even cabin roofs and at least one car, said the Sentinel story. “You could hear the pine trees snapping like a gunshot. It was like, ‘pow,’ said Gauthier. “… Twenty seconds and it was over and there were trees everywhere.”
The storm reportedly generated more than 40 wind gusts exceeding 75 mph. Stearns described the storm as “just kind of a freak thing where everything aligned.” He said his office staffed up to about half-dozen people that day, a Saturday, doing things such as getting out warnings, gathering reports, handling phone calls and putting information out on social media.
Stearns said wind damage reports came in from places such as Blanding, Monticello and Vernal in Utah, on Grand Mesa and in Craig, Colorado where a roof was blown off a house. High winds also hammered Denver and other areas east of the Continental Divide, according to media reports.
Winds exceeding 100 mph were reported in some areas. Stearns said a 129-mph gust was reported in Blanding. While he questions the accuracy of that high a reading, he said radar picked up winds of about 90 mph in the Whitewater area near Grand Junction, and it’s possible that 100-mph speeds occurred on Grand Mesa.
Gauthier handles sales for DTN, a weather forecasting company.
“I’ve been in giant storms before and chasing tornadoes and all that kind of stuff. This wind was insane,” he told the Sentinel. “The skies were boiling and rotating. … It was just amazing.” He said trees perhaps six feet in diameter were swaying 30 or 40 feet at their tops.
Bill Edwards, Grand Valley district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, said, “It was pretty darn impressive.” He said spruce, which were affected by the storm, are a shallow-rooted species. “It doesn’t take a whole lot to blow them over sometimes,” he said. A lot of trees also had their tops snapped off, sometimes 30 feet up the trunk, Edwards said.
Gauthier said the end of a tree fell on a car at a neighboring cabin while the driver was in it, shaking her up as it caved in the roof and blew out a window but leaving her unharmed.
Greg Stratman, a real estate agent who sells cabins in the resort community and owns one there, said the majority of cabins were fine, with perhaps 5% getting hit by trees. He guessed that maybe 50 or 60 trees fell in the community, but thousands of trees grow there. “It was a big wind event, but at the same time it didn’t go in there and clear everything out, either,” he said.
Edwards said crews first responded on Grand Mesa by working to remove downed trees that blocked in campers. Chainsaw crews spent the weekend of June 12 reopening the popular Crag Crest Trail not far from the Grand Mesa Resort Co. community, after the trail was “severely affected” by downed trees, Edwards said.
“There were areas you couldn’t walk 20 yards without crawling over trees,” he said of that trail.
The Cottonwood and Neversweat reservoir areas just north of the Crag Crest Trail also were hard hit. While Edwards believes a majority of roads affected on Grand Mesa have been reopened, some trails are expected to take longer to clear. He advises that hikers be prepared for the possibility of doing some scrambling on some trails, and that users of all-terrain-vehicle trails bring a chainsaw with them.
The Forest Service’s Norwood Ranger District, which takes in areas including part of the Uncompahgre Plateau and the mountains in the Telluride region, also was hit hard by the June 6 storm, and by recent high winds on other days, according to District Ranger Megan Eno. She estimated that at least half of the roads and probably half the trails there were affected, largely by falling aspen.
“It did set us back a bit,” she told the Sentinel. She credited forest fire and recreation staff for getting most of the roads open within about a week. But she said it probably will take all season to get all of the trails open. Less-popular ones and trails in wilderness areas likely will take the longest to get cleared.
Forest officials will be watching for possible longer-term impacts such as potential insect infestations in cases where large stands of trees may have blown down. Eno isn’t as worried about that in the case of the aspen affected in the Norwood Ranger District, as opposed to beetle-vulnerable spruce. Edwards said that in parts of Grand Mesa without easy access, the amount of damage may not be known until annual overflights are done, typically later in the summer, to look for blowdowns and evaluate forest health.
The June 6 “derecho” storm was just part of what has been a windy spring. Stearns said periods of strong wind come with the transitional weather of spring and fall, as the jet stream overhead wanders north or south depending on the season.
Sometimes strong winds last only a day or few days, but this year a more extended period of strong winds resulted from a polar jet stream that was dipping a little farther south into the area, he said. “It’s almost like the spring transition season had held on longer into what’s becoming summer now,” Stearns said.