historic winter storm

Despite Friday’s intermittently sunny skies that belied a dire forecast, western Montana continued to gear up for potentially severe weather conditions through the weekend and into early next week.

Agencies and organizations took to social media to warn people about the storm's dangers.

"Batten down the hatches, secure the well-being of your animals, and prepare for a strong storm to come through starting late tonight, Friday 9/27, and lasting through the weekend," Missoula County 911 warned in a Facebook post.

A second post provided information on what to do in the event of power outages.

NorthWestern Energy likewise took to Facebook to post power outage preparation and safety tips from the National Weather Service, and posted this number — 1-888-467-2669 — where people could report downed tree limbs affecting power lines. (See box for other emergency numbers.)

"Along with snowfall, our upcoming winter storm will bring a prolonged period of strong, potentially damaging winds to the region," the National Weather Service in Missoula posted Friday, repeating warnings of a "prolonged wind event" lasting 48 hours.

The Missoula and Bitterroot valleys will see sustained winds of 20-30 mph, gusting to 40 mph, while the Flathead and Mission valleys could see winds of 40 mph with gusts as high as 60 mph said NWS meteorologist Jeff Kitsmiller.

"The damage from the wind and how long we'll have the wind could really be a problem," he said. Snow might not pose as much of a problem unless depths reach about 4 inches. "That's when it will start breaking branches," he said.

The combined snow and wind mean "travel conditions won't be that great on Sunday. It's not recommended to be traveling, especially if people want to go east. It's going to be so bad over the passes."

The City of Missoula said in a release that its Parks and Recreation Department’s Urban Forestry Division and Street Maintenance Division have developed an emergency plan to keep streets and sidewalks clear, with crews on call and in the field as the storm develops. Parks and Recreation postponed a number of weekend events, and listed the new times on its web page.

The storm's arrival coincides with archery season and was preceded by a string of warm, sunny days, two things luring people into the backcountry and national parks. Agencies dealing with both groups warned hunters and hikers to take the weather seriously.

Conditions in the backcountry, the National Weather Service warned, could be "life-threatening."

“The park is preparing for a predicted significant winter storm expected to arrive tonight,” Glacier National Park warned in a Friday-afternoon news release. “People are discouraged from embarking on extended hikes, should dress for snow and freezing temperatures, and plan to be self-sufficient.”

During the storm, Two Medicine Road, Many Glacier Road and much of Going-to-the-Sun Road will likely be closed, the park's release said. 

"Logan Pass Visitor Center is likely closed for the season. Apgar and St. Mary Visitor Centers are anticipated to continue operating. Two Medicine, St. Mary, and Many Glacier backcountry permit offices have closed for the season one day early. Many Glacier and Two Medicine Campgrounds are also closed in advance of the storm. They may reopen for fall primitive camping when the storm passes and road and weather conditions improve."

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks warned hunters to take precautions. “We’re in the peak of archery season, moose-hunting season, fall black bear season,” said FWP spokesman Dillon Tabish. “There’s a lot of hunting opportunities so it’s definitely important for hunters to go through their survival kit and clothing to make sure they’re ready for inclement weather.”

Connie Marshall with Bob Marshall Wilderness Outfitters said a party of six hunters went to their camp 15 miles into the Bob and is not supposed to come out until Monday. “Another person is riding into camp today to help in case the storm gets really bad,” she said. “We’re just making sure we’ve got enough people to make sure the camp is safe and to keep our hunters safe.”

The storm is predicted to hit Flathead Lake, which is in the midst of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ fall Mack Days fishing event that runs through Nov. 10. The Mack Days web page carried a red banner Friday reading “Note: High Wind Warning for Flathead Lake This Weekend,” and a copy of the National Weather Service notice warning of 60 mph wind gusts on the lake, with waves as high as 6 feet.

Mack Days participants with fish on Saturday were urged to call if they needed fish picked up at Big Arm, Salish Point, Somers or Wayfarer.

Tabish said FWP is pulling its docks on Flathead Lake at West Shore, Big Arm and Yellow Bay, but hopes to have them back in the water next week. An FWP Region 1 Facebook post urged boaters to check the NOAA Flathead Lake wave forecast before launching.

After the wind and snow, it's supposed to get unseasonably cold, with temperatures well below freezing.

Check Missoulian.com throughout the weekend for weather updates.

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