Various public services organizations were gearing up or changing plans Thursday, and some events have been canceled, in advance of what could be a historic winter storm this weekend.
During a conference call Thursday morning, Jenn Kitsmiller with the National Weather Service warned that the cold front bearing down on Montana from Canada could bring frigid temperatures and measurable wet, heavy snow that the Treasure State hasn’t experienced in September in more than 30 years.
“It’s something very abnormal for this time of year,” Kitsmiller said. “It’s a statewide thing. Some of the heaviest snow will occur in the central part of the state, and it’s expected to have a statewide impact.”
She broke the storm into three phases. The first will encompass Friday and Saturday, and include a foot or more of heavy, wet snow at the higher elevations, particularly along the Continental Divide and Marias Pass. The storm also will bring strong winds in the northwest, with gusts of up to 50 mph that could create blizzard-like conditions and big waves on Flathead Lake.
“In 1970 and again in 2000 we had similar conditions that led to 6- to 10-foot waves on Flathead Lake,” Kitsmiller said, adding that the waves severely damaged docks and sank boats.
During the second phase, which runs from Saturday night into Sunday, rain in the valleys will change to heavy snow, with the possibility of several inches accumulating, Kitsmiller said. Snow also will continue to fall in the high country, with up to 3 feet accumulating. With leaves still on the trees, the snow has the potential to break branches, which could fall on power lines and lead to outages.
“The stress on the trees can be a big issue,” she said. “There will be some winds, but they should be decreasing.”
The third phase, from Monday to Tuesday night, will see a rapid drop in temperatures, including lows of 25 degrees in Missoula, 20 in Stevensville and 22 in Hamilton, Katsmiller said. That’s raising the potential for snow to melt on the roadways and possibly refreeze, creating icy conditions. It also could damage irrigation lines.
Typically, the average high for this time of year is 67 degrees.
NorthWestern Energy is adjusting staffing at its customer service centers, according to spokesperson Jo Dee Black, and preparing equipment in advance of the forecast winter storm. She encourages customers to call 888-467-2669 to report outages and downed or damaged power lines. They also can report outages, view the status of an outage and receive notifications online and on mobile devices at northwesternenergy.com/safety/outage-safety/outage-mapping.
“Call wait times may be longer if there are widespread outages,” Black wrote in an email to the Missoulian. “We appreciate the public’s understanding and patience.”
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Steve Felix, the Missoula area maintenance chief for the Montana Department of Transportation, said they’re “getting everything put together” so all the sections in the Missoula division have snowplows, salt/sand and de-icer ready to go if needed.
“I don’t think this will be unusual for some of the pass areas, like Lost Trail, Lookout or Lolo,” Felix said. “But the lower valley locations — the Bitterroot, Missoula and up north toward the Flathead and Mission valleys — it may be a little earlier than normal. The severity of the cold is somewhat unusual, too.”
His crews were out Thursday erecting signs, including those reminding people to watch for ice on bridges. Felix is worried that out-of-state visitors may not understand how rapidly road conditions may change, and that most people probably haven’t put snow tires on yet.
Felix noted that the warm roadbeds probably will melt most of the snow during the weekend, but the cold snap forecast for Monday can create black ice quickly.
“We do what we can to mitigate it, but at times it freezes pretty fast and we have to be reactionary,” Felix said, adding that motorists shouldn’t use cruise control with the rapidly changing conditions. “We were talking to the National Weather Service yesterday, and they said this is a February type of system in September, which is rare. I’m concerned people will not be ready for this. They shouldn’t take this storm lightly.
“These can be life-threatening conditions if you get caught in it. If you have to travel, take your time and be prepared for rapidly changing conditions.”
The University of Montana canceled a softball tournament Sunday due to the weather, but lists as “tentative” the Saturday softball games, according to spokesperson Paula Short. The decision was made after listening to the National Weather Service briefing with their facilities, grounds, and maintenance crews, plus law enforcement officers and medics.
“We’re recommending if folks plan to come out and watch events, that they check our social media channels and website,” Short said. “We’re also recommending that students who are considering backcountry travel or recreation to reconsider based on the weather.”
Missoula County Public Schools aren’t making any changes in light of the forecast storm, but their transportation contractor is watching the MDT travel map at https://roadreport.mdt.mt.gov/travinfomobile/ in case of road closures, according to Hatton Littman, the MCPS communication director.
Montana State Parks is moving its National Public Lands Day events at Milltown and Fort Owen state parks from Saturday to Oct. 5 due to the inclement weather. But Five Valleys Land Trust’s trail building on the Miller Creek side of Mount Dean Stone is a go on Saturday, whether it’s rain or snow. They’re just warning people to dress accordingly and bring gloves.
And Glacier National Park instituted temporary closures, including on Going-to-the-Sun Road from Jackson Glacier Overlook to Logan Pass. The Many Glacier Campground closed at noon Thursday, and the Two Medicine Campground will close Friday morning. The St. Mary Campground will remain open, but "camping not advised" signs are in place, according to the park’s Facebook page. Instead, it recommends people watch the storm on the webcams at nps.gov/glac/learn/photosmultimedia/webcams.htm?fbclid=IwAR2f2Nfru32iG5RLQUZmjbg8fqV8Mzym7f3E8JHF3BiqaxYFX1fT5QUdE94.