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In West, drought creates a costly tumbleweed problem

Authorities near Ordway, Colo., tried to move tumbleweeds around with trucks in an effort to keep roads clear for motorists and to allow emergency vehicles to get though.Crowley County/Associated Press/file/ 2013

ORDWAY, Colo. — Mini-storms of tumbleweed have invaded the drought-stricken prairie of southern Colorado, blocking rural roads and irrigation canals, and briefly barricading homes and an elementary school.

Firefighters even had to cut a path through them to get to a pregnant woman who feared she’d be trapped in her home if she went into labor.

The invasion of the tumbleweed, an iconic symbol of both the West’s rugged terrain and the rugged cowboys who helped settle it, has conjured images of the Dust Bowl of 80 years ago, when severe drought unleashed them onto the landscape.

‘‘It never ends,’’ said Chris Talbott, as he used a snow shovel to push the weeds into the street in Colorado Springs.

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The latest drought, which began in 2010, has created tumbleweed trouble in parts of New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Desiccated Russian thistle, a woody leafy plant, and kochi, both invasive weeds from Eurasia, are the culprits.

In Colorado, cattle would eat the tumbleweed, helping to keep it in check, but many ranchers have reduced their herds or gotten rid of their animals because of the drought. After the first winter freezes, the plants broke loose and began rolling with the wind.

For municipal authorities, there’s a big price tag for that tumbleweed.

Crowley County, high plains country of ranching and farming east of Pueblo in southern Colorado, has spent $108,000 since November — more than a third of its annual budget — clearing roads and bridges to make sure residents and emergency vehicles can get through.

El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs, has spent $209,000.

Aside from the roads, the tumbleweeds have buried cars and blocked houses in new developments on the outskirts of Colorado Springs.

Given the cost, at least three Colorado counties — El Paso, Crowley, and Pueblo — are considering local states of emergency that would allow them to seek financial help from the state.

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