A 5.8-magnitude earthquake that hit western Montana early Thursday morning toppled items off shelves and roused Montanans from their beds from Missoula to Billings but apparently caused no significant damage.
The epicenter of the 12:30 a.m. quake, which was also felt in neighboring states, was about 6 miles south of Lincoln. The shallow quake originated about three miles underground, according to a preliminary report from the U.S. Geological Survey.
The USGS recorded at least nine more tremors in the same area within an hour of the initial quake, ranging in magnitude from 4.9 to 3.1.
The Montana Department of Transportation had maintenance and engineering crews out inspecting infrastructure and bridges in the Lincoln, Helena and Missoula areas, public information officer Lori Ryan said Thursday.
The crews have found no damage and none has been reported to the department, Ryan said.
NorthWestern Energy said late Thursday morning that they had no reports of damage.
Spokesman Butch Larcombe said in the Lincoln area about 1,350 homes lost power right when the earthquake hit. Crews went out to a substation and closed a breaker to restore power after about 45 minutes. The substation was not damaged.
NorthWestern did some investigation of their natural gas system in the Helena area and found no damage. A few people called the utility to report the smell of natural gas, but crews didn’t find any leaks.
Larcombe encouraged people to check out their properties to for damage.
Lisa Large, a bartender at the Wheel Inn Tavern in Lincoln, said early Thursday the power went out and bottles flew off the shelves when the earthquake hit. Other than that, she said, there wasn’t any major damage there. She was in a fairly jovial mood when called by a Missoulian reporter near closing time at 1:50 a.m.
“It slopped all the grease outta the fryer,” she said. “The kitchen’s a mess right now. The lights have been out and they just came back on. Hopefully we don’t get any more aftershocks.”
Dave Eplin from Deer Lodge called The Montana Standard shortly after 12:30 a.m. asking for confirmation of an earthquake.
“I was lying in bed with my wife reading and all of a sudden the whole house shook,” he said. “At first I thought it was the wind, but it wasn’t the wind. I’ve checked to see if my pilot lights were still on and they are.”
Twitter lit up around Montana seconds after the quake, with people weighing in from Bozeman to Kalispell to Glacier National Park to Billings and elsewhere in Montana.
"Did the entire state of Montana just have an earthquake?" tweeted Brandon Furr.
Sean Ryan of Butte tweeted, "Now that everyone in Montana is awake from that earthquake ... you guys want to play Monopoly or something?"
Glacier National Park account tweeted, "Western Montana just had a decent-sized earthquake. Good shake here at Park HQ in West Glacier #geology."
Minor earthquakes are fairly common, although Thursday's moderate quake was the strongest felt in western Montana in several years. The last one to exceed 5.0 magnitude was reported 12 years ago near Dillon, according to the USGS. Most of those incidents had epicenters farther south, many centering in the famously active Yellowstone National Park.
Mike Stickney, seismologist at the Earthquake Studies Office, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology on the Montana Tech campus in Butte, said the quake was probably the strongest in Montana since October 1964.
The location, he said, is not surprising. “It’s right along the axis of the intermountain seismic belt.”
He said the quake occurred on a strike/slip fault, a vertical fault where one side moves horizontally against the other, similar to the kind of movement experienced along the San Andreas Fault in California.
He said he does not believe the quake is seismically tied to the recent “swarm” of smaller earthquakes in the Yellowstone National Park area. “I don’t see any direct relationship between these two sequences,” he said.
“This is a pretty sizeable earthquake. It would certainly have the potential to do structural damage near the epicenter, but we’ve had no reports indicating damage yet.”
The USGS reports the Lincoln quake was one of 20 within the last week and 236 within the last month.
Within an hour of the Lincoln quake, more than 5,000 people had reported feeling the shake, filling out surveys the scientists use to document reach and strength.
In Yellowstone County, the city-county communications dispatch center received several phone calls within about a half hour of the earthquake from people who reported feeling it. The callers wanted to make sure they weren’t crazy, a dispatcher said on Thursday. The dispatch center received no damage reports.
Brad Shoemaker, Yellowstone County’s director of disaster and emergency services, said there have been no reports of damage from within the county. Two people called wanting information because they had property in the western part of the state, he said.
Most people across the region reported category III or IV movement, which typically includes brief shaking that rattled some items without knocking them from shelves. Some reports from Helena and Bonner were initially classified as category 5, which can include some shifted furniture or light damage. A handful of reports from Lincoln and the immediate area were initially classified as category VII, which can include structural damage to buildings, though none has been confirmed.
This story contains reporting from Lee state reporters Holly Michels in Helena and Jayme Fraser in Missoula, Jesse Chaney at the Helena Independent Record, David McCumber at the Montana Standard, David Erickson and Ashley Nerbovig at the Missoulian and Alyssa Small at the Billings Gazette.