DENVER -- An early blast of winter walloped some western states with deep snow and slowly pushed into Nebraska and Kansas Thursday, bringing blizzard conditions to the eastern plains and causing treacherous roads, closed schools and hundreds of canceled flights.
The fall storm spread 3 feet of snow and left much higher drifts across parts of northern Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, before its leading edge hit neighboring states just to the east.
Wind-driven snow built to blizzard conditions over much of eastern Colorado. The weather service warned most area roads would be impassible Thursday night because of blowing snow and near-zero visibility.
The heaviest October snowfall in the Denver area in a decade forced the closure of hundreds of schools and businesses. Roads across the region remained snowpacked and icy.
"Big storms like these, they seem to come around every 10 to 12 years," said Kyle Fredin, a National Weather Service meteorologist.
Denver-based Frontier Airlines said it canceled 44 flights in and out of Denver International Airport. Other flights were delayed by up to four hours. United Airlines, the airport's dominant carrier with about 400 flights per day, canceled half its flights Thursday to prevent delays and cancellations from spilling over into Friday, spokesman Charlie Hobart said. Both airlines planned to operate full schedules Friday.
Airport spokesman Chuck Cannon said crews were using 174 pieces of snow-removal equipment to keep runways and taxiways clear as they dealt with severe wind gusts. Cannon said two departure and two arrival runways were open. The airport received at least 16 inches of snow with 5-foot snow drifts east of Denver, the weather service said.
The Colorado Department of Transportation closed a 140-mile stretch of Interstate 70 from near Denver to Burlington and 55 miles of Interstate 76 from Lochbuie to Fort Morgan. Plows struggled to keep up with the blowing snow, said CDOT spokesman Bob Wilson.
No serious accidents were reported, likely because shuttered businesses meant fewer cars on the road, Wilson said.
In Wyoming, road closures included a 40-mile stretch of Interstate 80 from Cheyenne to Laramie; a 35-mile span of Interstate I-25 from Wellington to Cheyenne; and a 200-mile stretch of I-80 west of Big Springs to Laramie, Wyo. Snow drifts were running up to 4 feet in Cheyenne and up to 6 feet 30 miles north of the city.
The Wyoming Department of Transportation said it was unlikely Interstate 80 across the southeast part of the state would reopen until Friday. More than 120 accidents were reported across Wyoming Wednesday and Thursday but there were no fatalities.
A winter storm warning was in effect until Friday morning for portions of western and north-central Nebraska, with forecasters predicting gusts of up to 35 mph and five to nine inches of snow by Friday from Imperial in southwest Nebraska toward Valentine near the South Dakota border.
A foot of snow had fallen in Rushville in western Nebraska by Thursday afternoon. Three-foot drifts were reported elsewhere in western Nebraska.
Northwestern Kansas was expected to get off easier but forecasters nevertheless posted blizzard warnings for some area where winds of 35 mph and up to 5 inches of snow were expected.
The wintry weather also brushed South Dakota, where Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the far west was shut down.
The storm began Tuesday and broke records for total October snowfall for Wyoming. It was the biggest October snowmaker in the Denver area since 1997, said Byron Louis, a weather service hydrologist in Boulder.
Many schools in metro Denver stayed closed Thursday, but the University of Colorado in Boulder and Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where 17.5 inches fell, reopened a day after sending students home early.
The snow and chilly weather didn't deter people from the prospect of free chicken. More than 100 people camped outside a new Chick-fil-A restaurant in Fort Collins overnight Thursday for a chance to win a year's worth of free weekly chicken meals. They huddled around propane heaters supplied by the store and were invited inside for hot chocolate and cookies just before bedding down in sleeping bags and tents.
Denver's Friday forecast called for sunny skies with highs in the upper 30s.
Associated Press Writers Colleen Slevin and Judith Kohler in Denver, Nelson Lampe in Omaha and Matt Joyce in Cheyenne contributed to this report.