Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Temperatures in Missoula dropped from a high of 14 degrees on Wednesday at midnight and fell steadily over the course of the day, officially hitting 0 degrees at 1:30 p.m.

It reached -5 just before 8 p.m. - cold for Montana's so-called "banana belt."

Snowfall was light, however, and street crews kept busy throughout the day, even as winds began to pick up and windchill factors dropped to dangerously low conditions.

It was a wintry way to ring in the Winter Solstice – the longest night of the year and the "official" beginning of winter. The good news - spring is that much closer.

"We're coming into a couple of days of severely cold weather," Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess said. "Please be safe, and please look after your neighbors. This is a good time to avoid nonessential travel. If you can, stay in.”

The cold front made national news as it descended south across the Canadian border into Montana. The town of Dillon saw temperatures drop 20 degrees in three minutes, from a relatively balmy 27 degrees at 4:22 a.m. to 1 degree at 4:25 a.m.

A similar anomaly was recorded just before 1 p.m. further south when temperatures in Cheyenne dropped 40 degrees in an hour, from 42 degrees to 2.

An hour later it was minus 6.

Denver, which lies two hours south, was next, and it was bracing for its coldest temperatures in decades. Officials there planned to open an entire indoor coliseum to those needing heat.

In Missoula, temperatures fell more steadily, dipping below zero just before 4 p.m. The National Weather Service reported wind chills of minus 20, and temperatures were expected to reach minus 19 overnight with windchill factors nearly double.

Thursday will warm to around minus 7.

Temperature Charts from the National Weather Service show forecast temperatures in Missoula heading into Thursday.
Temperature Charts from the National Weather Service show forecast temperatures in Missoula heading into Thursday.

The Poverello Center didn't return calls seeking comment on Wednesday, though city officials said both shelters were at capacity and staff members were busy. The city and county contributed additional funding to help operate the winter shelter.

“The Johnson Street (winter) shelter is incredibly full, 160-plus every night, and (executive director) Jill Bonny is determined to turn away no one,” said city spokesperson Ginny Merriam. “Streets crews are working, no plans to do anything different.”

Both Lost Trail and Blacktail Mountain ski area's announced closures on Thursday due to extreme cold. The City of Missoula announced no changes in operations and Missoula County Public Schools said it would continue to monitor conditions.

”We are prepared for the cold, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary for winter operations," said Public Works Director Jeremy Keene. "We expect we’ll get some additional calls with frozen pipes or service lines. We’ll have folks on call for the utilities and be making rounds to make sure we have access and heat at all our well facilities. We have backup generators in place in the event of a power failure."

Keene added that the Streets Department runs a night shift and will provide 24-hour coverage for snow plowing or other needs.

"Fortunately, the extreme cold is not expected to last very long," Keene said.