Potent storm buries NW Montana, leaves Missoula swimming

A group of Hellgate High School students hurry through a heavy rain-snow mix on Monday during their lunch break. While Missoula’s snowpack rapidly melted, other parts of western Montana got buried with more than 30 inches of new snow. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

A potent winter storm plowed through western Montana on Monday, burying several northwest communities in more than 30 inches of snow while delivering heavy rain and rapid snowmelt in Missoula.

Highway 2 and portions of Highway 89 were closed due to dangerous conditions, as was the Amtrak route, and icing along Interstate 90 west of Missoula caused a multi-vehicle accident near Saltese.

While the winter storm tore through the state’s northwest quadrant, Missoula’s deep snowpack diminished quickly under 40-degree temperatures and heavy rain, causing ponding on roadways and concerns of possible flooding.

The city’s Department of Public Works is keeping the sandbags handy.

“If we get a big, mass flow of melting, it’ll cause problems,” said Brian Hensel, superintendent of the city’s street maintenance division. “Right now, we have a preponderance of pooling on the streets.”

The rapid snowmelt was expected to test the city’s storm-water system, with some areas relying on ground sumps to absorb the water.

In other areas of the city, crews worked to clear snow and ice from storm drains to aid in runoff. At times, they used brush trucks to sweep away standing water. The rapid melt and thaw also created the season’s first batch of potholes.

“My overtime budget is over budget,” said Hensel. “It’s the time when I have the most crews on. I’ll have to keep guys over this afternoon.”

The challenges were far different north of Missoula, where several communities faced deep snow and blizzard conditions. As of Monday afternoon, Libby had picked up 32 inches of new snow, while Kalispell was sitting at 19, according to the National Weather Service.

Glacier National Park also picked up heavy snow.

Jeff Kitsmiller, a meteorologist with the Missoula office, said snowfall at upper elevations couldn’t be recorded due to lack of access. Reports on Facebook placed the snowfall totals at more than 50 inches just east of Marias Pass.

A Mountain Line bus plows through a pool of standing water on Orange Street on Monday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Several power outages were also reported.

“It’s one of those perfect balances where you have plenty of moisture coming in from the Pacific, and a bunch of cold air that came in from Canada,” said Kitsmiller. “The railroad is closed as well along Highway 2. Up in Libby, they had to keep people out of some of the buildings, because they’re worried about them collapsing.”

Kitsmiller said Missoula winter snowfall totals stood at 48 inches earlier this week. While it doesn’t yet rank in the top 10 snowfall seasons, he said, there’s still several months of winter weather remaining.

The Climate Prediction Center at the University of Montana is forecasting above-average temperatures and above-average moisture for Missoula over the coming weeks. Additional rain and temperatures near 40 are expected by Friday, Kitsmiller added.

“There’s still a lot of snow and water in the snow,” he said. “There’s still an end-of-week warm-up, and it looks like it will have some rain. But it’s not a long duration warm-up. Right now, we’re not thinking it’ll be quite enough for flooding.”

Other snowfall totals included 30 inches in Eureka, 21 inches in Noxon, 31 inches in Olney, and 25 inches in Yaak.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com