Storm

An early fall storm wallops the Rocky Mountain Front on Sept. 28 and 29, dropping one to three feet of snow, producing hazardous driving conditions and decimating trees and shrubs in Choteau and surrounding communities.

An early fall storm Sept. 28 and 29 — dubbed “snowmageddon” and the “snowpocalypse” on social media — dumped more than a foot of snow on Teton County with snow depths of 12 to 22 inches in the foothills and three feet in the mountains west of Choteau and Augusta.

Some county residents had a hard time measuring snow depths because whipping winds on Saturday and Sunday blew the snow into large drifts, in some cases nearly as high as the eves on houses. Temperatures in Choteau hovered in the range of 27 to 34 degrees during much of the storm.

Throughout the county, school, sports and community events planned for Saturday and Sunday were cancelled. The Power Harvest Fest and homecoming events on Saturday were all postponed, for example. Choteau Public Schools cancelled the midseason volleyball tournament and the homecoming dance. On Sunday, the United Methodist Church in Choteau and Brady cancelled services and the fall turkey dinner at the Brady Church.

On Sunday, administrators cancelled school on Monday in Choteau, Bynum, Dutton/Brady, Fairfield and Golden Ridge. Greenfield and Power public schools did not run buses and did not start until 10 a.m. on Monday.

Russell Owens of Choteau with the Rocky Mountain District ranger station on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest on Monday said the USFS was hearing reports of 36 inches of snow west of Dupuyer on the forest and 38 inches west of Augusta. He said it appeared that outfitters with fall hunters in the backcountry had taken precautions and were able to weather the storm without incident though the amount of snowfall may have made certain routes impassable.

The National Weather Service started warning residents of the Rocky Mountain Front and north-central Montana that a significant fall storm was on the way on Sept. 24, forecasting 18 to 36 inches of heavy, wet snow with near-blizzard conditions, accompanied by near-record cold with dangerously low wind chills over the weekend.

The NWS warned of extreme impacts to agricultural and outdoor recreational (i.e., hunting) interests, power infrastructure and travel across north-central Montana — and the agency wasn’t wrong.

The NWS said a similar storm system in 1934 resulted in unprecedented snow for late September with cold temperatures that impacted travel, agriculture and communities along the RMF. [See Acantha reporter Nancy Thornton’s “Old News” column on page 3 for a write up of that historic storm.]

Gov. Steve Bullock on Sunday issued an executive order declaring an emergency in Montana because of the storm. Areas hardest hit included Cascade, Flathead, Glacier, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Pondera and Teton counties and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Glacier County and Pondera County all issued local emergency declarations.

“With an unprecedented winter storm throwing our state a surprise in September, state and local governments are working closely together to protect the health and safety of Montanans and our top priority is making sure that happens,” Governor Bullock said. “Montanans should heed all warnings from state and local officials, travel safely, and be cautious during this time.”

The storm brought heavy, wet snow with accumulation amounts up to three feet in some locations, Bullock said. High winds downed trees and power lines resulting in road closures, emergency travel conditions, intermittent cellular service and power failures. He said unseasonably cold temperatures this week are likely to delay snowmelt in some areas and bring the end of the growing season for some agricultural producers. The storm also has the potential to cause flooding in Montana.

Bullock’s emergency order allows the use of all necessary state government services, equipment and suppliers to further the efforts of local governments in protecting the health and safety of Montanans. With the order, state resources can be mobilized to impacted counties with eligible expenses for emergency protective measures and debris removal.

The storm brought rain starting during Friday night football games that turned into snow overnight and blizzard conditions throughout Teton County on Saturday and Sunday.

Teton County Sheriff Keith VanSetten issued an “emergency travel only” request on Saturday morning and extended that into Sunday. From Friday night through Monday morning, he said, the Sheriff’s Office had 40 calls for service, and all but a half of dozen of those were related to downed power lines, vehicles stuck in roads or vehicles sliding off roads. But, thankfully, no injury accidents were reported, VanSetten said.

The deputies worked their regular schedules and were able to respond to the calls that came in, he said.

“Everyone’s digging out and letting the snow settle,” VanSetten said. “Everyone took precautions and used common sense, and I would applaud everyone for that.”

Choteau Public Works Director Mike Maples on Saturday put out a call on social media for people to stay home.

“There are a lot of downed power lines and downed trees which is creating a very dangerous situation,” Maples wrote on the city’s Facebook page Saturday morning. “Again, to keep yourself and our crews safe, please stay home if at all possible.”

The heavy, wet snow did a number on Choteau’s urban forest as most trees still have all their leaves and were vulnerable to a wet storm. The snow squashed lilac, dogwood, raspberry and caragana bushes to the ground. The thick, clinging snow cracked off large tree limbs, that landed on cars, garages, campers and streets, mangled clothes lines and deck furniture and draped small trees over fences and rooves. The snow clung to power lines and broke several of them in Choteau.

Choteau Acantha photographer Don LaBaugh said he and his wife, Ethelee, had a close call at their home on the west side of the Mini Park on Sunday. The heavy snow knocked down a tree limb in the alley that fell on the electrical line and their service line.

They woke up at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday to overly bright flashing lights on their microwave and night lights, and alarms sounding on their kitchen stove and Ethelee’s oxygen concentrator. There was also a burning electrical smell and smoke.

Don said he immediately shut off power to the home and called 9-1-1. Dispatch sent out a crew from NorthWestern Energy to do a temporary fix so they still had power for heat. But, Don couldn’t get his furnace to start. Heating contractor Brian Brutosky responded next and had to replace a fuse that had burned out in the flare. Later another NWE crew responded to do the permanent repairs.

Don said that appears to be the only thing the power surge destroyed, but he hasn’t checked his tools in his garage yet. “The NWE guys were really good,” he said.

People throughout the community posted storm pictures and damage reports on their social media pages. Josie Lightner posted pictures of her sedan, heavily dented by falling tree limbs.

“Snowpacolypse 1, Chrysler 0,” she wrote. “Our hardy little car took a beating today ... I love the snow, but I’m not real enthused about this.”

Steve Skelton who runs sheep and cattle west of Bynum posted on Saturday morning, “Well, had to move some cows out of stackyard. Holy Moly. Two feet plus, plus drifts, and it’s still snowing. On Sunday, he posted that the ranch had gotten another eight to 10 inches of snow. “This is getting really serious now. Four-wheel drive pickups will be useless,” he posted. “Going to have to plow everything. Really worried about all the cattle along the mountain front. I’m thinking we are at 24 to 28 inches of snow.”

Sun River Electric Cooperative in Fairfield and NorthWestern Energy both had crews working throughout the region on Saturday and Sunday, but, fortunately, there were no widespread, lengthy power failures. Choteau saw the power go out at about 8:35 a.m. on Saturday and NWE got it back on about 75 minutes later and kept it on through the rest of the storm.

“We dodged a bullet,” Sun River Electric Manager Scott Odegard said Monday. The electric cooperative experienced failures starting at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday through late Sunday night. “However the outages didn’t involve any downed poles,” Odegard said.

Most of the problems were related to trees or branches either falling or lying on power lines.

The failures were throughout the coverage area from Conrad to Highwood, the Simms Valley and all along the Rocky Mountain Front. He said the Simms area was hit the hardest with spot failures through the rest of the area.

Odegard said the biggest problem was getting to the site of the failures, causing for delays in fixing the problems and restoring power.

Travel was difficult with blowing and drifting snow. He praised the help the crews received from area farmers and ranchers in clearing the roads for them to work. The crews also used track vehicles to get to areas that were impassible by vehicle. Odegard said SREC has three of the small two-person vehicles that feature a box in the back for tools. “They come in handy and work good for hard-to-reach outages,” Odegard said.

The cooperative used its crews for the storm-related repairs. A cooperative in the Billings area offered assistance, Odegard said, but could not have gotten to the area until most of the storm was gone.

With the forecast in mind, Odegard said SREC was prepared for significantly more problems. “We had semi-trucks of poles on stand by and crews from Red Rock ready to roll in replacing downed poles,” he said. “We were over prepared for the event that happened which didn’t appear to have the wind originally predicted. This had the potential to be as bad or worse than the storm we had a few years back.”

Visiting with other cooperatives in the area on Monday, Odegard said they are reporting similar failures with little to no pole damage.

SREC expected to have all power restored by Monday night. “We are following snow plows now to reach areas we couldn’t over the weekend,” Odegard said. Crews will continue to clean up repairs throughout the week. If there was a cross arm cracked but not broken or a line sagging but not causing trouble, such small repairs may have been left so the crews could take care of larger concerns, Odegard said. “They will return this week to make those repairs,” he added.

Maples on Monday said that the city crew started working last week to have all of its equipment ready for snow plowing and removing tree limbs if the storm materialized as forecast. “We just got everything pretty much ship-shape,” he said.

Work started for the city crew at 4:52 a.m. on Saturday when the power went out at the wastewater treatment plant. Plant operator Levi Warehime responded, Maples said, and worked to reboot computers while the emergency generator smoothly clicked on and worked as it was designed to. The power to the plant was out for several hours.

At the same time, Maples said, the water plant’s computers quit communicating with the city’s water storage tanks. City crew member B.J. Warehime responded to that problem and was able to fix the situation. The electricity to Choteau was restored before the city needed to turn on its emergency generator to keep water pumping.

Maples and Colin Lightner reported for work and began plowing city streets while two other employees, Kevin Kovatch and Tim Stocker, came in and began moving trees out of streets.

Maples said NorthWestern Energy’s crews worked throughout Choteau all day. “Those guys were awesome,” he said, adding that had the power been out throughout the storm, the situation would have been 20 times worse.

The city continued to plow snow throughout the weekend, so that their plows on pickup trucks could handle the volume. “We felt it was best to try to keep moving it,” he said.

This week, Maples said, the city crew will be hauling away big piles of snow and is asking everyone who lives on an avenue on Tuesday to move their cars so the city can plow from curb to curb, giving the crew room to start removing tree branches. The same is planned for city streets on Wednesday.

Residents can haul limbs to the boulevard or sidewalk in front of their homes for the city crew to pick up. Residents who can remove their own tree debris can take limbs six or more inches in diameter to the city property just east of the Sheriff’s Office for the city to dispose of.

Residents can haul their own limbs that are less than six inches in diameter to the city’s transfer site with the Northern Montana Joint Refuse Disposal District. The site (north of town) has a pit where untreated wood and tree limbs less than six inches in diameter can be disposed of.

Overall, Maples said, the city weathered the storm pretty well. “The crew worked really hard,” he said.

Choteau School Superintendent Chuck Gameon said he cancelled classes for Monday out of concern for what weather conditions would be like as the city and the area tried to dig out.

“The biggest reason was safety for parents and students trying to get to school, not having our staff and our kids out on the road,” he said. The school’s custodians responded over the weekend and on Monday to help clear away limbs torn off of trees around the school and to plow the massive amount of wet snow out of the school parking lots.

Gameon said he has a couple of options for how to make up the lost day of classes and he will present those ideas to the school board at its Oct. 8 meeting.

Choteau High School foreign exchange student Paula Rubio, a 15-year-old from Spain who is living with Courtney and Cason Graves, experienced her first snow day on Monday.

“I was really excited when I woke up and saw all the snow,” she told Courtney, who is a reporter with the Choteau Acantha. “The most snow I have ever seen in Spain is only about one inch, so this was really fun. And I did shoveling for the first time.”

Shoveling, she said, was hard work. “It was hard, but not too hard, because I didn’t want to have a heart attack.” (This was a joke because Courtney consistently told her to take breaks and not lift too much snow.)

On her snow day, Rubio was still thinking of school. She spent some of the day practicing mathematics for a test she will have to take in Spain when she goes home in June.

The storm gave people throughout the region the chance to help each other out, plowing roads, shoveling sidewalks and checking on elderly people. CBS News on its nightly report Saturday carried a story from Choteau, where the national news organization interviewed Choteau residents Micah Martin and his daugher, Hannah, who were shoveling snow, and talked to Undersheriff Steve Gjerde.

Whitney Bradbury of Choteau shared a story with the Acantha about the rescue of a pet dog on Sunday. “My husband, Paul Bradbury, relayed this story to me,” she said. “Paul was on a walk today over at the park by the baseball fields. Our chocolate lab, Chewbacca, was going nuts sniffing down in the snow, and he found this dog buried in the snow covered in ice.

“The dog took off running and Paul had to crawl through a bush to get it. It was shivering so badly. Paul got it home then our son, Noah, called the owner, and we got dog returned to its owner. Noah thinks Chewy is a hero today!”

That little black dog was Schatzi, a 1-year-old miniature Schnauser, belonging to Sherrel Passmore of Choteau. Sherrel and her husband, Gary, had left Friday to go to a Montana State University football game in Bozeman. Their son Parker stayed at home with their dogs.

After he took the dogs for a walk on Saturday, he didn’t get the gate to the yard firmly latched and it came open. When he let the dogs out Sunday morning, they absconded from the yard. Their retriever went to a neighbors’ place and was found quickly, but Schatzi had disappeared, Sherrel told the Acantha.

She was out in the snow for about six hours with temperatures of about 27 degrees and more snow falling. Sherrel said Schatzi was wearing a collar with her owner’s contact information, and she and Gary had only been home for a little while when the Bradburys called them with the good news.

Paul Bradbury is a physician assistant at Benefis Teton Medical Center, Sherrel said, and he immediately warmed Schatzi up. The little dog was pretty quiet the rest of the day on Sunday, but today she’s feeling just fine, Sherrel said, adding that she is very thankful that Chewy and Paul rescued her little dog.

This being Montana, the bad weather didn’t actually cancel all weekend plans. Some Teton County residents took precautions and still held their gatherings.

For example, the weather didn’t stop the wedding of Russ and Nichole Vincent in Fairfield. The Fairfield couple was married with family and friends in attendance on the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 28, at the Fairfield Community Hall.

The couple’s wedding plans changed because of the storm. “Our plan was to marry at the little church on the Threshing Bee grounds in Choteau,” the bride said. “Weather changed the plans, and we moved the wedding to the Fairfield Community Hall. They also had to change officiants. Fairfield New Life Pastor Mike Manuel stepped in two hours before the ceremony to marry the couple because roads were too bad for Aaron Skaggs to make it in from Choteau to marry them.

They still got a few pictures out side, Nichole laughed, adding, “No storm was going to take our day away.”

And while Power’s Harvest Fest and homecoming have been postponed, the storm did not stop the Power High School Class of 1969 from having their 50-year reunion. The class enjoyed a banquet and a bonfire.

The Power community also came together to celebrate the 70th wedding anniversary of Arnie and Dolores Gettel on Sunday, Sept. 29.