Missoulians left their homes Sunday morning to find a half-inch of snow covering the trees, lawns and cars, the first time a measurable amount of snow has fallen here in September since 1983.
The early flurry came as part of a winter storm that dumped several feet of snow and caused power outages across western Montana and into the northern High Plains. The severity of the storm prompted Gov. Steve Bullock to declare a state of emergency just before noon Sunday.
Prior to Bullock's announcement, the Blackfeet Nation, and Glacier and Pondera counties also issued emergency declarations.
Outside of Missoula, Northwestern Energy reported on its Facebook page that high winds combined with snow knocked out power in Choteau, Glasgow and Bozeman over the weekend. The utility company, which serves over 374,000 customers across Montana, brought on 60 weekend workers to manage power outages throughout the state.
The National Weather Service announced a winter storm warning Sunday that covered Butte, Georgetown Lake, Highway 12 Garrison to Elliston, Homestake Pass, MacDonald Pass, Highway 200 from Bonner to Greenough, Highway 83 from Seeley Lake to Condon and I-90 from East Missoula to Bearmouth. Within that area, the NWS forecasted snowfall piling up as high as 12 inches in higher terrains, and 3 to 6 inches in the valleys.
A blizzard warning is in effect for portions of Glacier County and the Blackfeet Nation, with wind gusts up to 50 mph causing snow drifts on roads. In Browning, which saw more than three feet of snowfall as of Sunday morning, the American Red Cross opened a shelter for stranded travelers.
“We had people positioned at the church on Friday, and they were ready and waiting for when emergency officials and our tribal partners said they needed us,” said Matt Ochsner, the organization’s regional communications director.
Ochsner said the shelter had taken in three people as of Sunday afternoon, and is prepared to offer free board and meals to whoever requests them through the emergency. An American Red Cross app is available to download that can provide details on emergency announcements and local shelter locations.
Wind gusts knocked down 30 trees on the eastern side of Flathead Lake Saturday, causing power outages and the closure of Highway 35. According to NWS meteorologist Leeann Allegretto, winds also capsized two sailboats docked at Finley Point. The high winds, Allegretto said, have helped cleanup crews by preventing the snow from piling up on the roads.
“Thankfully, the snow hasn’t stuck to any of the roads. We’re only seeing it in the mountain passes,” she said.
Allegretto said several more trees fell Sunday, and efforts are currently underway to clean up debris from the previous day and restore power lost from downed lines.
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“Crews are having a lot of issues with lack of internet and cellphone service, because towers were disturbed yesterday,” she said.
According to Allegretto, the disruption of cell towers in both Flathead and Lincoln counties has led to intermittent service throughout the area. The NWS also reported that Highway 35 between Bigfork and Polson has been limited to local traffic only.
Although the Montana Department of Transportation reported snow and ice on some roads in western Montana, neither Lake nor Missoula county sheriff's offices reported any crashes due to the weather as of noon Sunday.
“So far, it’s playing out about how we expected,” said Jennifer Kitsmiller, a meteorologist with the NWS station in Missoula.
Kitsmiller said the NWS forecasts the snowfall in Missoula to continue through the early afternoon. A winter weather advisory has been set for most of the Bitterroot Valley until Sunday evening.
“The next chance for snow isn’t until Friday, but one thing people should keep in mind is that, as the system clears out, we’re looking at hard freezing from (Monday) and into the middle of the week,” she said.
From its station at Missoula International Airport, the NWS measured the highest level of snow ever recorded for Missoula in September. The organization forecasts temperatures to drop to 21 degrees by Wednesday.
The plummeting temperatures, combined with the snow, brought an early harvest for Brihannala Morgan. Morgan, who has farmed a plot at the Garden City Harvest community garden on River Road for three years, saved a batch of peppers and tomatoes from the cold.
On Saturday, winds ripped a branch from a tree that tore down a power line two blocks from her home.
“You always expect the unexpected, but since I planted the seeds in April, there was really no way to plan for this,” said Morgan, who typically harvests well into October.
The Associated Press contributed to this story