One of three unoccupied trailers caught in the Clark Fork floodwaters launched off its foundation overnight and broke into pieces as it floated downstream from Schmidt Road, Mel Holtz, a spokesman with the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department, said Friday.
In addition, it appears that a 500-gallon propane tank from the same area also cut loose and floated downstream, as did some outbuildings. It was unclear whether the propane tank was empty or contained gas.
“These waters are really dangerous,'' Holtz said. "We’re worried about propane tanks that get dislodged and obviously the large trees and tree trunks that are heading downstream. People need to stay out of the water.”
At 3 p.m., the gauge above Missoula on the Clark Fork River showed the water was at 13.75 feet, which is above the 10-foot flood level. It’s expected to crest at 14.3 feet Saturday evening. Both the Bitterroot and Blackfeet rivers also are at flood stage, with the Bitterroot reaching 12.2 feet and the Blackfoot at 11 feet on Friday.
Below Missoula, where the Bitterroot River runs into the Clark Fork, the water was flowing at 51,100 cubic feet per second. That’s about five times the median flow for May 11.
Luke Robinson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula, said the anticipated flows will make this the second-highest crest on the Clark Fork since 1908.
“And it still will be the highest it’s ever been in 100 years,” Robinson added.
Officials also are watching the flows in smaller streams, noting that many are raging but remain within their banks. The Army Corps of Engineers is assessing them.
“The Rattlesnake is pretty high; it isn’t out of its banks in or around town but is running really high,” Robinson said. “As you go farther north and upstream, some area parks may be seeing some flooding but I haven’t heard anything about it impacting homes. It’s just flooding some fields and parks.”
Still, the National Weather Service has issued a small stream flood advisory for Missoula County, south central Lake County, southeastern Sanders County and north central Ravalli County.
Holtz said about 65 residences remain under evacuation orders, mainly in the Orchard Homes area north of Third Street but also on south Harpers Bridge Road and Hamel Road in Frenchtown. More than 800 more homes are under evacuation warnings.
“We ask people to take these warnings seriously,” Holtz said. “If you’re evacuated from an area, that’s because it’s not safe.”
The Missoula County Sheriff's Department is assessing homes along the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers for possible evacuations. Capt. Anthony Rio said they'll notify people only once if they're within various warning zones, and those people should be ready to go immediately if the warning becomes an evacuation order.
He's also encouraging people to notify the department if they see something of concern, like an undercut bank, and to sign up for Smart911 to be notified in case of an emergency.
Holtz noted that the Stonybrook area is experiencing groundwater flooding from the saturated soils. They're also keeping a close eye on Third Street near Tower Street because of potential water on the roadway.
"People are noticing their crawl spaces are filling up with water. We noticed that on both sides of Third," Holtz said. "You can tell the difference because the groundwater is clear, not dirty like the river water."
Flooding also is occurring in Seeley Lake, but Holtz and Rio said those residents appear to be taking it in stride.
"Most of the residents there who are affected include summer homes and they're not occupied," Rio said. "That really helps us. That community has been very resilient, very on their own and not asking for much right now."
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The stretch of the Blackfoot River, from the Weigh Station Fishing Access Site to the confluence of the Clark Fork River, was supposed to open this weekend due to a break in bridge construction. But the high flows have raised the river level much closer to the temporary construction platform under the bridge, providing for limited clearance, which prompted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to maintain the closure.
FWP cautions that river flows are already greater than average spring runoffs that floaters are used to experiencing. The high flows are dislodging large trees and other debris, creating hidden dangers beneath the water surface.
The Missoula County Sheriff's Department brought a handful of transients from the island camp off of Reserve Street, but one man who refused to leave had to be rescued Thursday night. Rio said the man was in the cold water for about 40 minutes, and was transported to St. Patrick's Hospital due to concerns over hypothermia.
Lori Ryan, communications director for the Montana Department of Transportation, said they're keeping an eye on bridges in the flooded area.
"We are monitoring the situations and doing bridge inspections to deal with any issues they may be having," Ryan said.
Jim Lewis of Montana Rail Link said high waters are on the railroad’s radar, but so far so good.
“We’re monitoring a lot of areas across our network and, knock on wood, haven’t had any flooding occur that has impacted operations,” Lewis said Friday. “At the Friday operations meeting our engineering staff was pretty happy with the way our drainage systems are working.”
Track inspectors are looking out for log jams behind bridge piers and other flood threats.
“If need be we’ll bring crews out to try to dislodge any debris and coordinate with any government agencies we need to,” Lewis said.
Robinson urged people not to become complacent, and noted that while the flood waters may recede slightly by Monday, warmer temperatures next weekend will bring them back up above 14 feet. Officials expect the flooding to last into June.
“Keep listening to emergency officials,” he added. “Certainly don’t drive or walk in flooded areas and keep monitoring our warnings.”
Rio said other jurisdictions have offered to send officers to help patrol evacuated areas and to staff road closures.
"This will be a marathon," he said. "In a normal year, (high water levels from runoff) doesn't go away until June. This is what we are planning for the sheriff's office: We are planning for it to get worse before it gets better, but we are hoping it will just get better."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency notes that 248 people have flood insurance policies in Missoula County. Of those, 102 are within the city and six are in Seeley Lake.
As the waters continue to rise, more volunteers are needed to help fill sandbags at the Orchard Homes Community Life Center on Third Street. Also needed are people with trucks or vans that can carry a load to people's homes. Volunteers should bring work gloves and wear waterproof clothing.
Kim Briggeman and David Erickson contributed to this story.