With the temperatures hovering around 7 or 8 below zero and snow piled up waist high in the community of East Glacier Park, Charley Wagner wasn’t all that anxious to go outside Friday.
“I’m just sitting and looking out the window right now,” Wagner said. “We had close to two feet of snow drop overnight on top what we already had. Right now it’s about window high. We’re totally snowed in.”
“I’ll let things kind of settle down a little bit before I go outside and dig the cars out,” he said. “On a day like this, you don’t want to get too excited.”
The good news for Wagner was the wind wasn’t blowing and there was a heat wave on the way.
Last week, the temperatures dropped to 22 below. By next week the forecast says temperatures will soar to 22 degrees above zero.
“Until then, we’ll just keep after it,” Wagner said. “Once in awhile, I get my shovel out and see if I can’t dig a path from the barn to the house. I can’t stay out there long, though. It’s too darned cold, but we’re used to it. It’s, you know, Montana.”
Cold and snowy is what many residents of western Montana faced Friday as an arctic front collided with a plume of tropical moisture to bring a wintery mix of cold, wind, snow and rain.
For a good part of the day, the line between the cold and warmer air hovered around the Missoula area, where the sheriff’s office recommended emergency travel for a portion of the day due to ice-covered roads.
National Weather Service meteorologist Ryan Leach said the temperatures in Missoula remained near the freezing mark into the early afternoon. About 40 miles northwest of town at Clearwater Junction off Highway 200, the temperature dropped to 11 degrees.
“Missoula has been sitting right on the edge of it,” Leach said. “The cold air is right there, but it’s just not quite making it all the way here.”
Leach expected the arctic air would eventually get as far as Missoula, but wasn’t certain how far down the Bitterroot Valley it might go. Another less severe cold front will enter the area from the west Saturday.
In northwest Montana, a second surge of moisture was expected to bring seven to eight inches of snow later Friday.
“We expect the peak of the precipitation to occur Friday night with lingering snow showers on Saturday,” Leach said. “There’s been some pretty tough driving across the state. There are a lot of areas that have had rain, snow and slush on the roads that have iced over.”
In Polson, Leach said it rained overnight and the cold air had turned everything to ice.
Missoula County undersheriff Rich Maricelli urged motorists to be careful, especially when they see emergency vehicles on the roadway.
An officer with the sheriff’s office was injured Thursday when a car plowed into the back of his vehicle after he stopped to assist with an accident on I-90 west of Missoula.
Sgt. Gordon Schmill had turned on his emergency lights and pulled on the shoulder when a driver apparently over-reacted, hit his brakes and slammed dead center into the rear of Schmill’s vehicle. Both were transported to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
“He’s going to be off work for awhile,” Maricelli said. “He was stiff and sore, but fortunately nothing was broken. We want to remind motorists that when they see emergency lights, they need to be aware that they are on for a reason. People need to use extreme caution and slow down. All too often, officers attempting to help victims have to look over their shoulders because people are driving too fast.”
Ironically, three years to the date, another deputy was injured in a similar crash that ended his career, Maricelli said.
“We’re getting into the thick of winter now,” he said. “People need to slow down and drive according to what the road conditions allow.”
While the snow hadn't started to stack up quite yet in northwest Montana Friday afternoon, Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said his officers had been busy dealing with numerous slide-offs.
“We anticipate that those will continue as the weather gets worse later today,” Curry said. “It is really a good day to be home.”
For those who must be one the road, Curry said packing warm clothes and other standard winter gear in their vehicles is a must.
“While we drive four-wheel drive vehicles, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we can go everywhere, especially when we get off the beaten path,” Curry said. “People need to be prepared.”
The National Weather Service said parts of northwest Montana were experiencing difficult driving conditions due to reduced visibility caused by blowing snow as the arctic front dipped down into the state. Driving conditions are considered severe between West Glacier and East Glacier.
The conditions in northwest Montana were expected to get worse as the storm intensified later Friday with impressive amounts of snow in the forecast.
Travel along the I-90 corridor, on the southern end of the Mission Valley and south through the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys, was expected to be extremely dangerous due to a mix of ice and snow on the roadways.
Flathead County Public Works Director Dave Prunty said high winds were creating challenges for motorists there Friday morning.
“We have drifts coming across roads already,” Prunty said. “We haven’t had to close any, but the potential will be there for sure when the snow arrives. We’re trying to open the roads as quickly as we can.”
“It was kind amazing this morning,” he said. “In Columbia Falls, the wind was blowing like hell. By the time you get to Evergreen, it was a gentle breeze.”
Prunty saw a few cars in the ditch during his travels in the Columbia Falls area.
“It’s getting hard to tell where the edge of the roadway is in some places,” he said. “We have a lot of people working today. If we get the snow that they are predicting, it’s going to get real interesting. Right now, the worst of appears to be in the Columbia Falls, Hungry Horse and West Glacier area. It’s going to be really tough going through Bad Rock Canyon.”
Further south, conditions in Lake County deteriorated as the day went on. By late afternoon, officials asked people to stay off the roads as much as possible.
"It's emergency travel only at this point," said Lake County Road Department Supervisor Jay Garrick. "The wind and snow is creating zero visibility in some areas."
People were getting stuck in drifts in the middle of roads, which meant that plows couldn't get through.
"We want to try to keep people from driving on the roads that tend to blow shut when we get conditions like this," Garrick said. "People either need to find an alternate route or stay in town overnight while the storm blows over. We are punching roads open and an hour later they are drifted shut.
“I would encourage people to stay in and stay safe today,” Garrick said. “After tomorrow, there are sunny days ahead. There will be plenty of opportunity to get outside then.”
Ravalli County sheriff Steve Holton said it rained all night long around the Hamilton area.
“It’s raining and 34 degree right now,” he said shortly after 11 a.m. “I’m kind of hoping this skirts the Bitterroot. Sometimes we get lucky and that happens.”
The main concern in the Bitterroot Valley was the back roads that were snow packed when the rain arrived.
“They are really slick right now,” Holton said. “I think people’s driveways are going to be biggest issue with people falling down. You can hardly walk where there was packed snow.”
While there hadn’t been any major power outages in the area covered by Flathead Electric Cooperative by early Friday afternoon, Wendy Ostrum-Price of Flathead Electric said it was likely that some people could lose power for a time during the storm.
“Right now, we have two outage impacting 189 members in the West Glacier area and one southwest of Kalispell,” she said. “We have 60,000 meters. This snow that’s coming is pretty heavy. It’s been my experience with systems of this magnitude, we get some outages. I tell everyone I know to get some groceries ahead of time and be ready to hunker down."