Residents across Colorado braced for impact March 13, 2019. A storm approached unlike any other – Bomb Cyclone 2019.
A bomb cyclone is a phenomenon in which barometric pressure drops rapidly, typically creating hurricane force winds and heavy precipitation.
Elbert County resident Ryan Becraft said he was driving home from work, having left early, in hopes of getting home before the impending blizzard made travel difficult. However, the storm built substantially faster than had been predicted, visibility and road conditions quickly deteriorating to unsafe levels. Ryan found himself headed down a two-lane country road, which was barely visible beyond the hood of his vehicle.
“Just about the time I turned on County Line Road (County Road 194), it became a whiteout,” he said. “Every few seconds, I could get a glimpse of how far ahead the next car was.
“Traffic was moving about ten miles an hour then just stopped. At that point I knew I’m probably not going to get through,” he said.
With visibility at only a few feet, Ryan said he soon found that vehicles ahead of him had become stuck in a drift. He said he attempted to turn around, hoping to get back to Aurora and wait out the storm. This too would be unsuccessful.
Ryan started calling family to let them know he was going to be late.
“I didn’t know how late but that I was going to be there for a little while,” he said. Ryan shut off his vehicle to conserve fuel. With only a quarter tank of gas, he did not know how long it would last and how long he would be there.
A few hours went by and it began to get dark.
“It was pretty early on that I realized I was going to be staying the night out there,” Ryan said. “I just had a hunch.”
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, for his first time as Commander in Chief, made the call to activate members of the Colorado National Guard, at around 1:00 p.m.
The CONG’s Snow Response Teams have M973A1 Small Unit Support Vehicles clad in a digital camouflage custom wrap, with emergency lights visible from far away.
The SUSV is similar to a “snow cat” in that it is a fully tracked vehicle. It has the capability to carry both cargo and passengers and can traverse nearly any terrain and water.
The vehicles are a federally funded resource used to transport Special Forces units and mountain infantry Soldiers during winter survival training. They also double for state emergency response missions.
This vehicle also has a front and rear cab that can comfortably seat 11 passengers, in addition to three crew members. Its all-rubber tracks enable the SRT to support civil authorities during emergency response operations such as for floods, fires, blizzards and tornadoes.
SRT teams train annually. Colorado governors have activated them several times for state responses during the past decade.
U.S. Army Sgt. Renae Mondragon is a full-time technician and a member of the SRT at Field Maintenance Shop 6 in La Junta, Colorado, more than 150 miles away from Elbert County.
“When we got the call, our shop was ready to roll out the door in less than an hour,” she said.
A large area of the state needed ground search and rescue support.
“We had six personnel and two SUSVs,” Mondragon said. “Our SRT split into two separate teams, doing different missions … [the split was] a first for us, we always work as one.”
In high gear, on flat terrain, the SUSV is capable of speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, and in deep snow, five to 15 mph. Because of this, the teams use tractor trailers to move the vehicles as far as possible before they are unloaded and driven.
“When you have snow packed areas, it can be hard to distinguish where the road is, but the past years of SRT training at Hahn’s Peak, Colorado, have really paid off, and that shows,” Mondragon said.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Leo Banuelos is an SRT member from FMS 9, based in, Aurora, Colorado.
Like many others, he had already completed his work day, but he answered the call and returned to the shop to meet up with his team.
Banuelos’s team paired with a team from FMS 2 in Denver, and they headed toward CR 194.
“We got there at around one in the morning,” he said. “We had already made contact with the county sheriff so we knew the plan was to just start searching vehicles and bringing the motorists to the Rattlesnake Fire Department. We could take eight people, at a time and each round trip was about 50 minutes.”
U.S. Army Capt. David Burbridge, Maneuver Area Training Equipment Site Supervisor at Fort Carson, Colorado, received the call around 7 p.m.
“I was notified that I was tasked to be Task Force Commander,” Burbridge said. “When I arrived at MATES, the rescue teams were already mobilized and on the way to their staging areas.”
Although the rescue teams worked directly with the incident commanders, Burbridge had the responsibility of maintaining command and control of the National Guard elements.
“I worked with the CONG Joint Operations Center [in Centennial, Colorado] and the SUSV teams to coordinate our movement,” Burbridge said.
Burbridge had to rely on accurate communication from the teams in order to paint a picture of the operation.
“The troops on the ground know best what’s going on. As long as it sounds right and is not going to put anyone at any unnecessary risk, we’re going to let them do what they are asked to do.”
Through a combination of 800 MHZ radios, cell phones, conference call, and GPS trackers, the JOC built a common operating picture of the mission.
In total, four SUSV teams checked 276 stranded vehicles and rescued 93 motorists and two dogs. Mondragon and the team from FMS 6 saved 26 of the motorists and both dogs in Douglas and Elbert counties. Banuelos and the teams from FMS 9 and FMS 2 accomplished 40 rescues.
One such rescue was Ryan, and although neither knew, it was Banuelos’ team that brought him to safety.
“About 6:30 a.m the Army guys showed up,” Ryan said. He had watched them get closer and closer to his location, plucking groups of motorists from their snow buried cars along the way.
“It was great when they finally made it to where I was at. They were really helpful,” he said.
Some rescues however, were more challenging than others.
“Several people did not want to leave,” Banuelos said. “They wanted to wait it out until the plow trucks cleared the road the next morning, but every time we returned, the snow got deeper. After about the fourth trip, they left with us.”
One motorist was unresponsive due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
“While we were searching the vehicles, the FMS 2 team got the call [to assist the unresponsive motorist],” Banuelos said.
They transported the victim to the fire station where medics determined that the individual needed further care.
“He was then transferred to my track,” Banuelos said. “We were the only ones available to get him to where the roads had been cleared enough for an ambulance.”
When the teams were confident that all motorists had been rescued, they returned one last time to check the vehicles, this time marking door handles with caution tape to signify that the vehicle was cleared.
“Our last team finished up at around 11 a.m. When you combine a regular duty day followed by state activation orders, it makes for a really long 24 hours.”
The teams had been awake for more than 30 hours, during a cold and extremely windy night.
“All the people were thanking us; they were grateful. When we pulled them out, they were really happy to see us,” Banuelos said.
“Whether the call comes in at six in the morning or six at night, we’re going to get in our tracks, and we’re going to go help you. We’ll push ourselves as far as we can go,” Burbridge said.
Less than a month later, a second bomb cyclone impacted the state.
Burbridge and his teams were once again activated to help responders with motorist rescues.
After prepositioning 24 vehicles, including Light Medium Tactical Vehicles, Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks, and SUSVs up and down the Front Range, the call never came.
All through the night, they were ready.