By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - A winter storm walloped eastern Colorado and western Nebraska with the region's first heavy snow of the new year on Friday, closing schools, disrupting flights at Denver International Airport and creating blizzard conditions on the High Plains.
A foot of snow piled up in the Denver metropolitan area, with up to 2 feet reported in the foothills west of the city, said Frank Cooper, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder, Colorado.
The storm also dumped heavy snow on parts of western Nebraska, with more than a foot measured on the ground in the Sand Hills region about 40 miles north of North Platte, the Weather Service reported.
The state Legislature in Lincoln, canceled public hearings in anticipation of the storm, which interrupted an unusually snowless western Nebraska winter.
"It's a pretty big system," weather forecaster Cory Van Pelt in North Platte told Reuters. "We've had some accidents that closed some roads."
The snowfall spread Friday afternoon to extreme northwestern Kansas, as forecasters predicted accumulations of 6 to 12 inches through Saturday morning.
Blizzard or winter storm warnings were posted for northwestern Kansas on Friday, but Weather Service meteorologist Mark Buller said forecasts of winds of 20 to 30 mph may be downgraded.
Cooper said a warm, moisture-laden air mass from the Gulf of Mexico collided with colder northern air over southeastern Colorado to unleash the snowstorm east of the Continental Divide.
Sustained winds of 30 miles per hour on the Plains created blizzard conditions that severely reduced visibility on highways, but forecasters said the snow was expected to taper off by Friday night.
Most school districts in eastern Colorado, including Denver, announced Thursday night, ahead of the storm, that they would be closed on Friday.
Interstate 70 was closed to east-bound traffic from Denver to Limon, Colorado, said Mindy Crane, a spokeswoman for the state Transportation Department. The interstate also was shut westbound from the Kansas border to Limon due to blowing and drifting snow.
Denver International Airport remained open, but about 600 incoming and departing flights were canceled on Friday, airport officials said in a recorded message.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Steve Gorman, Paul Thomasch and Tim Gaynor)