Fruita resident and professional photographer Jaime McKee says she feels like she gambles with her life every time she drives through rockfall-prone stretches of western Colorado highway such as Interstate 70 through De Beque Canyon.
On Sunday, the odds nearly caught up with her when she was driving to Denver for a photo shoot. Rocks came down, disabling two cars and causing minor to moderate injuries for two people, and McKee drove up just as the dust was settling, maybe 15 to 20 cars behind the ones caught by the slide.
If she had come through perhaps 10 seconds sooner, it could have been her car that was hit, she said.
It was scary, "especially because I had my 7-year-old daughter in the back," she said.
Now, to help minimize such threats to other motorists, the Colorado Department of Transportation is expecting to keep eastbound I-70 through that part of the canyon closed until Thursday or Friday to allow for continued slope mitigation following Sunday's slide.
Crews are working to bring down more unstable rocks from the hillsides along the highway.
"We're erring on the side of safety to get as much material down as we can," Colorado Department of Transportation spokesperson Tracy Trulove said.
Eastbound traffic is being detoured onto Highway 65 at Exit 49, the Powderhorn Mountain Resort exit, and then over the cutoff road to De Beque and back to I-70. Westbound lanes remain open.
Trulove said the area involved is notorious for having smaller rockfall incidents. Sunday's caused officials to take a closer look at the area, which has been made more unstable by all of this year's moisture, and crews will be doing work requiring bringing down a significant amount of loose material. CDOT is taking advantage of the closure and detour already being in place in order to do that.
"We're going to be doing a bunch of mitigation on that slope," Trulove said.
Contractor Rock Solid Solutions out of Grand Junction is working with CDOT's geohazards team on the mitigation work.
Trulove said the detour route was taking motorists perhaps 45 minutes. The roads on that route are in good shape because of work done by Mesa County and CDOT in recent years, she said. A 12-foot width restriction is in place on the route.
McKee said some men moved some of the rocks at the scene, enabling cars, including hers ,to get through and make way for emergency personnel. She was happy to leave, given her concerns about the potential for more unstable rocks on the slope.
"I felt we were putting ourselves at risk just sitting there," she said.
Before leaving, McKee checked on the women whose cars were struck, making sure they had water. She said they didn't appear to her to be injured.
While McKee was able to get through quickly, Sunday's slide resulted in many eastbound motorists being stuck for hours west of the slide. Many of those who arrived before the detour had been set up ended up in what was effectively a temporary parking lot that stretched for miles.
"We sat there for about three hours" before being allowed past the slide site, said Susan Cassidy, who works in the advertising department at the Daily Sentinel.
She was with her husband, driving their 5-year-old granddaughter back to Meeker.
She said people made the best of a bad situation. Some put up the awnings on their campers and pulled chairs outside, some with bikes rode up to the slide site and came back to let others know what was going on. Some climbed up the hillsides next to the highway, others played cornhole or hacky-sack.
"I think everybody just knew that you were stuck. Everybody seemed to be just hanging out," Cassidy said.
An ice cream truck was caught in the traffic deadlock, and it became a popular attraction.
"They were doing a booming business selling ice cream to everybody," Cassidy said.