HELENA – Gusty winds apparently blew 58 large containers off a train 13 miles west of Helena near the small community of Austin and caused numerous power outages throughout Lewis and Clark County.
According to Lynda Frost, a spokesperson for Montana Rail Link, the derailment occurred about 4:55 a.m.
“A preliminary investigation indicates the train was impacted by high winds while moving through a curve on the Continental Divide,” Frost said in an email. “Four of the derailed five-pack cars and their containers are currently strewn along the slight embankment at the scene. There were no hazardous materials in those containers located on the hillside nor were there any injuries.”
Most of the containers were empty, Frost said.
“As a rule, we don’t have containers on our railroad, so we have never experienced a container derailment of this magnitude,” Frost said, adding that typically, the containers are shipped on BNSF tracks.
She’s not sure how long it will take to clean up the derailment, but added that the track is still in use. The derailment is near the same curve where a different train went off the tracks, spilling containers, in April.
Wind also wreaked havoc elsewhere, with power outages from Augusta to Lincoln to MacDonald Pass to Winston to White Sulphur Springs – and all points in between.
By 9 a.m., Zach Uttech of the National Weather Service in Great Falls said Helena had gusts up to 40 mph. Those types of gusts can push around high-profile vehicles and probably took down some of the trees killed in the recent mountain pine beetle epidemic.
“The weaker trees definitely have a greater chance to fall over in this wind,” Uttech said. “It’s probably a little dangerous to be out there” in the woods.
By midafternoon, the Helena Regional Airport reported a wind gusts up to 62 mph, according to Nick Langlieb with the National Weather Service. In Augusta, gusts were reported up to 117 mph, with one registering 103 mph near Choteau.
“We’re getting a lot of reports of gusts in the high 70s and into the 80s along Highway 89 along the Rocky Mountain Front,” Langlieb said. “On Logan Pass, they had one at 119 mph this morning.”
Those gusts are strong enough to tip over semitrailers.
Throughout the day, law enforcement officers reported numerous trees across roads. The school in Augusta was closed all day due to the lack of power, and Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton reported damage to the bleachers at the Augusta rodeo grounds, and two barnlike structures in the 4500 block of Elk Creek Road also were heavily damaged.
On Monday morning, most of Augusta and Lincoln were out of power, as were homes on MacDonald Pass, in Rimini, near the Little Blackfoot in Canyon Creek and in Wolf Creek. Winston had at least one broken pole, and to the east White Sulphur Springs was having problems with some transmission lines, Butch Larcombe, a spokesman for NorthWestern Energy, said.
Larcombe said NorthWestern called in extra crews to help restore power to customers, and only a few isolated outages remained by 5 p.m. Most of the outages were caused by trees that fell on powerlines, plus a few broken poles.
The Teton Pass ski area closed Monday due to winds.
Winds died down around nightfall, and Langlieb said on Tuesday the wind should be reduced to more of a breeze of 10 to 15 mph, with a high temperature of 46 degrees. The Helena area also could see about an inch of snow.
“But that shouldn’t stick around,” Langlieb said. “It’s more spring-like weather.”