POLSON — Residents of the Northern Rockies awoke Saturday to either deep snow and bone chilling temperatures or ice-covered roadways that created treacherous driving conditions following an early winter storm that packed a wallop.
The snow was expected to begin tapering off in northwestern Montana Saturday, but travel continued to be challenging due to drifting snow and wind chills that plunged temperatures into the negative numbers.
Further south, temperatures dropped below freezing from Missoula and into the Bitterroot Valley to turn roads into ice skating rinks.
An avalanche off of Mineral Hill in Helmville shut down traffic on Highway 200 about 16 miles west of Lincoln Friday night at about 10 p.m. The highway reopened at 5:30 a.m. Saturday.
One car was buried up to its roof and a semi-trailer tractor truck slammed into the eastern edge of the avalanche. No one was injured.
Lincoln Volunteer Fire Department assistant fire chief Aaron Birkholz said the avalanche was about a quarter mile long.
When volunteer firefighters arrived on the scene, they found the truck driver still inside his vehicle that was covered back to the door in snow about 10-feet deep. Birkholz said he could see the top of the car that was caught in the avalanche.
“I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for them,” he said. “The truck driver told us he was staying warm. His truck was still running when we got there.”
It was bitter cold at the scene of the avalanche.
“I don’t know for sure what the temperature was, but it must have been about five to 10 below with winds that were gusting up to 40 mph,” he said. “You couldn’t even look up because that blowing snow would just hammer you in the face.”
The roadways between Lincoln and the avalanche late Friday and early Saturday were covered in drifts that were two-feet deep in places.
Birkholz said there hasn’t been an avalanche at that spot for a long time, but it wasn’t a surprise to anyone who knows that location that it occurred there.
“We have been expecting it,” he said. “If you know that mountain, you know that nothing is holding the snow when it begins to pile up there.”
Lincoln received about six inches of snow last night. Birkholz said there is about three feet on the ground Saturday morning.
“We have been getting hammered,” he said at about 8:30 a.m. “It’s snowing hard here right now. The snowflakes are huge. We’re supposed to get three to five inches today and another three to five inches tonight.”
National Weather Service meteorologist Dave Noble said this week’s storm brought a little bit of everything to the region after a plume of subtropical moisture overflowed an arctic cold front. On Saturday morning, a new Pacific cold front arrived on the scene bringing wind and some wild swings in temperatures.
“Some areas ended up getting dumped on and others didn’t get as much snow this week,” Noble said. “This storm was kind of tricky to predict who was going to get freezing rain versus snow."
Initially, the Bitterroot Valley received several inches of snow on Wednesday. When the warm subtropical air arrived the next day, temperatures bumped up above freezing and created a sloppy mess.
“Friday the Bitterroot received freezing rain in some places and in some places it got just plain rain,” Noble said.
By Saturday morning, a cold front from the west dropped temperatures below the freezing mark and the ice that formed on roads created treacherous driving conditions between Stevensville and Missoula for a time.
Ravalli County sheriff Steve Holton said Saturday morning the roads in the Corvallis area weren’t bad.
“I drove to the gym in two-wheel and didn’t have any problems,” he said. “Right now, we have blue sky and about 34 degrees. So far, I think we’re skating through this storm. Still, I would encourage people to slow down and watch for ice on the roads.”
Missoula received a total of just over nine inches of snow from Wednesday to Saturday.
“We got some freezing rain here yesterday and then it changed over to snow and freezing rain last night,” Noble said. “This morning’s commute was pretty treacherous. There was some snow on the road and the bare spots were like ice rinks.”
Some of the snow that fell over the past couple of days in the region was packing a good deal of moisture. The 37 inches of snow that fell at the Powell station south of Lolo Pass had about four inches of water in it.
“We saw some heavy, wet snow fall in some areas, but the further north you go, it was much drier,” Noble said. “Most of the snow that fell in central Idaho and west central Montana was pretty heavy. I call it Pacific concrete. I had to shovel some yesterday and it was heavy.”
In places, the Pacific cold front pushed out the colder arctic air Saturday morning and brought bands of heavy localized snow to other areas.
Just west of Anaconda, temperatures went from 17 degrees to 38 in a few hours. In Ovando, Noble said snow was dropping at the rate of three inches an hour for a time Saturday morning.
The Pacific front was also packing some wind.
At Point 6 near Snowbowl, gusts of nearly 60 mph were recorded Saturday. A sensor near Georgetown Lake measured gusts of 43 mph.
The collision between subtropical moisture and the arctic front also brought its share of wind to the area, especially to northwest Montana.
On Friday night, wind gusts of up to 40 mph hour in the Polson area created blizzard-like conditions. High winds also created challenges for motorists in the Flathead Valley.
Noble said people can expect to see a gradual decrease in snow showers through Saturday as a high pressure system begins to build over the area the next few days.
As of Saturday morning, Noble said there were only two areas where driving conditions were severe. Those included the Helmville area, where the avalanche occurred, and in the St. Mary area northwest of Browning.