Heavy snowfall on the Hi-Line triggered a declaration of emergency on the Fort Belknap Reservation, blocked roads and left thousands without power Tuesday from Havre to Malta after howling winds and a downpour of wet, heavy snow hit the area Monday afternoon and into Tuesday morning.
A primary election on the reservation was postponed until Wednesday as a result of the "blizzard conditions," said Community Council President Mark Azure. The election had been scheduled for Tuesday.
At the peak of Tuesday's outages about 9,000 NorthWestern Energy customers were powerless. By 8:30 p.m. about 4,500 customers had power restored, with Northwestern hoping to get power back to most other customers Wednesday with the exception of some rural customers. Havre had power restored but Chinook was powerless overnight, said Butch Larcombe, a spokesman for NorthWestern Energy. Poor visibility combined with dangerous low-hanging power lines and required rest time led to crews being called off overnight. Larcombe estimated about 400 power poles were in need of replacement or repair.
"We're making progress and we're certainly sympathetic to people that are without power. We know it's tough and it's cold," Larcombe said. "It's a big logistical challenge at this point."
An additional 2,700 customers with Hill County and Big Flat electric cooperatives had also lost power by Tuesday morning, according to the Montana Electric Cooperatives Association.
As of 6 a.m., the National Weather Service reported 14.9 inches of snow had fallen in Havre, and sustained winds of 25 to 35 miles per hour had uprooted trees throughout the city.
“We’ve had people call us and say they don’t think there’s anybody without at least some tree damage in their yards through pretty much the entire city,” Christian Cassell, a forecaster for the NWS office in Great Falls said. “With the strong winds and the heavy, wet snow and the fact that leaves were still on the trees, the snow was so heavy that that was the perfect recipe for widespread tree damage and power outages."
By late morning, the NWS office was also getting unconfirmed reports of 25 to 30 inches of snow in the Bears Paw Mountains and on the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation. There were also reports of 8-foot snow drifts, according to Mark Coulston, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls.
The storm was produced in part by a trough of low pressure extending from the northern-central plains down to the southwest coast of California, which allowed Pacific moisture to travel up to the Hi-Line, Coulston said. That moisture was met by a Canadian cold front, and the combination produced the snowy, windy conditions.
The storm began to die down Tuesday, and Coulston estimated some affected areas had seen between 12 and 24 hours of intermittent snow and blowing snow. Power outages at an NWS observation site in Havre led to gaps in weather data, but Coulston estimated if conditions didn't technically meet blizzard conditions, they were "blizzard-like."
The declaration of emergency in Fort Belknap was intended to give road crews time to plow reservation roads and to get resources to help residents in need of emergency medical care, according to a press release from Azure. Downed power lines and power outages were also reported on the reservation.
While only about 1.5 inches of snow fell in Great Falls, Cassell added that most areas along the Hi-Line east of Cut Bank were “in pretty bad shape.”
The Havre Police Department closed all city streets to non-emergency travel, it announced on its Facebook page.
The Montana Department of Transportation reported severe driving conditions on state and federal highways throughout much of Hill, Blaine and Choteau counties. A downed power line on U.S. 2, 4 miles east of Harlem, blocked traffic shortly after 9 a.m.
Many public schools were closed Tuesday due to the weather and power outages. Affected school districts included Havre, Harlem, Zurich and Chinook.