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Montana Storms Prompt Emergency Declarations, More School Closures

Snow plow. Stock photo.
Snow plow. Stock photo.

Another blast of winter weather was expected to drop up to 8 inches of fresh powder in parts of the Missoula and Bitterroot valleys by Wednesday evening. This just two days after a powerful winter storm buried Hamilton and Stevensville in up to 2 feet of snow.

"This is a weather system that’s part of the overall one that’s been hitting us for the last four days," says Bruce Bauck, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Missoula. "This piece of energy’s coming up from southwest Oregon and it’s got a little bit more moisture than we thought."

Another 1 to 3 inches of accumulation is possible Thursday across west-central Montana. Two to 4 inches is forecast for northwest Montana, which has been spared this week’s powerful snow storms.

The extended forecast is calling for below-normal temperatures at least through the end of next week. The latest round of bitterly-cold weather is forecast to start just in time for the weekend.

"The winds are gonna stay pretty light into Friday, but then as that Arctic air spills down across the region Friday night and Saturday we're probably gonna see 10 - 20 mph, gusting sometimes 30 mph winds in the valleys here," Bauck says. "That'll make the wind chills go probably 20 to 25 below zero."

Accompanied by another 1 to 3 inches of fresh snow.

Great Falls Weather Service Meteorologist Keith Jaszka, meanwhile, says ice jams are causing some isolated problems east and north of the Continental Divide.

"First of all there’s one along the Missouri River in southwestern Cascade County. That’s been causing some road closures near I-15; not for the interstate itself, but we have learned that a road called Sheep Creek Road has been closed due to some water across that road way."

Another ice jam reported on the Gallatin River near Logan in southwest Montana is responsible for the evacuation of at least one home. That portion of the Gallatin is reported to be in minor flood stage.
Two ice jams are reported near Ennis; one is on the Madison River. Another on O’Dell Creek has resulted in floodwater crossing U.S. Highway 287.

Jaszka cautions drivers against taking chances with flood waters:

"Because it only takes about one to two feet of swiftly flowing flood water to carry your vehicle away."

Search and Rescue Teams are standing by just in case nearly 50 snowed-in Cascade County residents need help.

KULR -TV reports the people, who live in remote, off-grid cabins, are fine and don’t yet need assistance. The Cascade County Sheriff’s Department says snow drifts as high as 6 feet are trapping some people in their homes.

Governor Steve Bullock, meanwhile, has signed an emergency order meant to keep the supply of heating fuel moving amid the deep winter weather.

Truck drivers normally aren’t allowed to work too many hours in a row and are required to rest a certain amount of time. But harsh winter conditions are pushing distributors to travel farther to find fuel sources. Poor road conditions aren’t helping.

Dan Lloyd manages the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s Energy Planning and Renewables section. Lloyd says deliveries to many end-customers are taking longer.

"This is one of the coldest Februarys on record, and with all of the recent snow, basically falling all around the state, it's made deliveries — particularly into rural areas — more difficult and time consuming."

The governor’s order doesn’t mean drivers are now allowed to drive to the point of getting dangerously fatigued on the road. Drivers needing immediate rest still must follow those standard "hours of service" requirements regardless of the order.

More snow and some very cold temperatures are on the way to western Montana this week.
Credit National Weather Service, Great Falls, MT.
More snow and some very cold temperatures are on the way to western Montana this week.

Axemen Propane serves thousands of customers across its western Montana service area. Managing Partner Mike Svoboda says recent demand for propane and heating oil is through the roof.

"It’s probably up 30 percent [over a typical February] and it doesn’t look like it’s going to let up clear to the middle of March at this point."

Svoboda says he’s glad the governor is temporarily loosening those working hour regulations for truckers carrying heating fuel.

He adds residential customers can help those drivers make even better time on their routes.

"Clean their driveways and scoop out to their tanks the best for the safety of the drivers and we can keep them making all the deliveries they can make."

For those who have had their fill of the snow, lousy driving conditions and sub-zero temperatures there’s hope yet: National Weather Service Great Falls says the latest projections suggest temperatures across most of Montana may finally rebound during the second half of March: meaning highs possibly in the 40s — maybe even the 50s.

Spring weather.  Imagine that.

Storms Close Bitterroot Valley Schools

Schools closed tomorrow due to the winter storm include Butte and Anaconda public schools, and Corvallis, Darby, Florence-Carlton, Hamilton, Stevensville and Victor school districts in Ravalli County.

That will be the third closure this week in Hamilton, following snow days on Monday and Tuesday. Kids were also sent home early today.

Hamilton School District Superintendent Tom Korst worked in Havre, Seeley Lake and Valier before starting in Ravalli County seven years ago, but his school year has never been interrupted like this.

"I wouldn’t have expected to cancel one day this week, I wouldn’t have expected to send kids home early today. But the National Weather Service actually called the school district directly and recommended that we consider sending kids home early. I have never had that. Again, in 18  years, I’ve never had that type of phone call," Korst says.

Basketball, adult education classes and other evening functions were also cancelled by the Hamilton School District, which has been all hands on deck the last few days.

Custodians and other maintenance workers have been arriving between 2 and 3 a.m. to begin shoveling and plowing snow. Principals and other faculty have also been dealing with the weather.

"Everybody who can throws a hand in to help out," Korst says.

Night crews were sent home early today, which means administrators will need to call in staff to clean classrooms tomorrow.

But Korst says the biggest burden is on parents and other community members who rely on schools as safe places for their kids to go during the day. That includes Korst, who has two children enrolled in the district.

He says district-sponsored day care hasn’t been a practical idea with typically infrequent weather closures. But additional weeks like this could change that.

"If this becomes a new normal where we are expecting to have a week or so of closures, we're gonna have to come up with another solution, I can guarantee you that."

This week’s closures could also present some issues later in the year. Time lost needs to be made up at some point.

Enough missed time requires the district to tack on additional days past the school year’s scheduled conclusion.

There is one caveat. The district doesn’t need to meet that requirement if Ravalli County declares a state of emergency, which commissioners did this afternoon due to record snowfall since Sunday.

County Road Administrator John Horat says 95 percent of 550 miles of county-maintained roads were plowed yesterday, but the snow hit again before crews could finish the job.

"This is an unusual event where it just keeps hitting each day for 3 days in a row — actually this is day four," Horat says.

Horat says nine plows and a grader have been clearing roads from 4 a.m. to 5 p.m. Two of the county’s other plows are broken down.

Ravalli County Declares Emergency

In Ravalli County, commissioners have declared an emergency due to the recent snowfall, and have called for essential travel only in Stevensville beginning at 5 p.m. Wednesday. The restritions will be in effect until further notice.

The Stevensville mayor has canceled all Town meetings for the remainder of the week, including Thursday's Town Council Meeting.

School closures:

Anaconda Schools - Closed Feb. 28.

Butte Schools - Closed Feb. 28.

Corvallis Schools - Closed Feb. 28.

Darby Schools - Closed Feb. 28.

Florence-Carlton Schools - Closed Feb. 28.

Hamilton School District - Closed Feb. 28.

Stevensville Schools - Closed Feb 28.

Victor Schools - Closed Feb 28.

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
Kevin is a UM Journalism graduate student and reporter for MTPR.
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