Elbert County rescue workers busy during blizzard

Abandoned vehicles made the mission tougher in Elbert County

Posted 3/25/16

It was a tale of two storms in the days leading up to Easter — the first storm a lion, the second a lamb.

“The visibility, I've never seen anything like it out here,” said Elizabeth Fire Chief T. J. Steck about the fast-moving blizzard that …

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Elbert County rescue workers busy during blizzard

Abandoned vehicles made the mission tougher in Elbert County

Posted

It was a tale of two storms in the days leading up to Easter — the first storm a lion, the second a lamb.

“The visibility, I've never seen anything like it out here,” said Elizabeth Fire Chief T. J. Steck about the fast-moving blizzard that ripped through the state on March 23, forcing multiple closures and creating treacherous driving conditions along the Front Range and Eastern Plains.

The visibility In Elbert County was so bad that when a family of five from St. Louis went off the road, they called 911 and were rescued by the Elbert County Sherriff's Office snow cat, a truck-like vehicle that moves on tracks, much like a tank.

It was only the next day when Elizabeth fire crews returned the family to their car did they realize their vehicle was stuck near a driveway leading to a house less than 100 feet away.

“The driveway was not 2 feet from their car,” said Fire Marshal Kara Gerczynski. “They had no idea there was a house there. They couldn't see the house. They thought they were in the middle of absolutely nowhere.”

The National Weather Service issued blizzard warnings early in the week and county agencies began staffing ahead of the storm, which ended up dumping 20 inches or more of snow in many areas of the county.

“We're planning 24 to 48 hours out. Winter storms are awesome, because we have time to plan,” Steck said. “We try to staff up enough so that we can staff an ambulance and an engine at each station, and have a full crew on our snow cat.”

Two agencies within the county operate snow cats. The other is the Elbert County Sheriff's Office and both were acquired four years ago through the 1033 Program, a Department of Defense surplus program created in 1997 to transfer retired military equipment to civilian agencies.

Both cats were in full use during last week's blizzard, rescuing stranded motorists and responding to emergency calls in places cut off to ambulances and the department's Humvees.

“At some point, the engines get pretty cumbersome to get out in the snow, and the worst thing we can do is stick a $400,000 fire engine into the ditch,” Steck said. “So typically, the engine crew will pull off the engine and go to the snow cat for medical [missions].”

In addition to responding to five emergency calls, 44 nonemergency calls, and one structure fire, crews also checked and tagged more than 30 abandoned vehicles with 3-foot strips of fire-line tape identifying them as unoccupied.

“As they made their trek through all of these [calls] they were checking every car,” Gerczynski said.

One of the biggest challenges for first responders during the storm was the number of motorists who disregarded road closures.

“We have lots of cars that are breaking through those road closures to get home. The cars just couldn't make it. So they stopped and literally blocked the road,” said Gerczynski.

The extra cars blocked ambulance access to emergency calls, including one involving an infant, adding to first-responder workloads, as well as making it more difficult for county road crews to plow.

Steck praised the coordination between fire departments as well as the county's response, especially noting the work of the Elbert County Office of Emergency Management and Public Works for their efforts to keep the roads clear.

Another, much lighter round of snow moved in March 25, continuing into March 26, bringing little in the way of disruption.

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