Don’t be breaking out your one-horse open sleigh yet, but that dusting of snow ringing Missoula hillsides Tuesday morning wasn’t just invigorating.
Believe it or not, it was a vestige of the earliest measurable snow of the millennium, as recorded at Missoula International Airport.
“We had one-tenth of an inch last night, and the last time we had one-tenth of an inch this early was in 1983,” said meteorologist Bob Nester at the National Weather Service in Missoula.
It was much earlier that year. Summer hadn’t officially ended 34 years ago when Missoula received .4 of an inch of the white stuff on Sept. 19.
Nester said the earliest measurable snowfall, at least since reliable records were kept, was on Sept. 15, 1965, when .2 of an inch fell.
Other parts of western Montana had similar snow experiences, but it was much more wretched farther east.
More than a foot of wet, heavy snow and howling winds blew through the Hi-Line from Havre to Malta on Monday afternoon and into Tuesday morning. An estimated 10,000 customers lost power as NorthWestern Energy and electric cooperatives scrambled to get the lights back on.
The National Weather Service reported more than 15 inches of snow fell in Havre, and sustained winds had uprooted trees throughout the city.
The storm closed streets, schools and the Havre Daily News, which didn’t publish on Tuesday. The weekly Phillips County News of Malta, a sister newspaper of the Daily News, is printed in Havre. Its publisher, Mark Hebert, said on Facebook that the paper's printing would be delayed for at least a day.
The Havre paper reported on its Facebook site that power was back on or coming back on in most of Havre by 1 p.m.
Late Tuesday afternoon, after the snow had passed, the Havre Police Department issued an order for emergency travel only “due to the weather conditions that has caused downed power lines and road blockages.”
“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,” said Christian Cassell, a forecaster for the National Weather Service office in Great Falls. “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."
Cassell’s 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.
Some 7,000 NorthWestern Energy customers lost electricity, and the power company said at midmorning that dozens more were reported but not yet confirmed.
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.
Schools in Harlem, Zurich and Chinook were among those closed. The superintendent of Harlem schools posted a message Tuesday evening that NorthWestern Energy was reporting that reliable power was not expected until early Wednesday afternoon.
"So for the safety of our students and staff, we will be closed again Wednesday and start fresh on Thursday," the post said.
The Great Falls Tribune reported the entire Fort Belknap Reservation, with 4,000 Gros Ventre and Assiniboine residents, was without power. A Tribal Council election scheduled for Tuesday was postponed until Wednesday.
Back in Missoula, Monday night’s skiff at the airport occurred between 11 p.m. and midnight, and was gone from the valley floor by daybreak.
That gave way to a mostly sunny Tuesday, with a promise of more blue sky on Wednesday.
The snow clouds west of the Continental Divide were picky about where they dumped their stuff. Anaconda had roughly 6 inches of snow overnight. Nearby Georgetown Lake got 3, and even nearer-by Butte had just 1 inch.
As in October 2017, the September 1983 storm in western Montana paled to those farther east. Billings still had 6 inches of snow on the ground the following day, Helena reported 4 inches of accumulation and Great Falls and Lewistown had 3 each.
And as in this year, the snow 34 years ago preceded a night of bone-chilling temperatures, including a record low of 24 in Missoula.
Forecasts on Tuesday called for a hard freeze overnight, with temperatures dipping to the mid- to upper 20s in the region, and maybe colder in the central Bitterroot.
“You might want to protect any exposed water hoses or irrigation systems tonight,” the National Weather Service in Missoula tweeted Tuesday afternoon. “A few places may reach record low temperatures including Butte, portions of the Bitterroot Valley, and other valley locations.”
The Billings Gazette contributed to this report.