The Flathead River at Columbia Falls was within hours of hitting flood stage early Wednesday afternoon, according to the National Weather Service in Missoula.
“It goes without saying that we have a lot of action going on today,” meteorologist LeeAnn Allegretto said during a daily flood briefing.
Rain will continue to fall Wednesday night and through the day Thursday before tapering off early Friday. The weather service was expecting another half an inch to an inch of rain along the Continental Divide by Thursday afternoon. That, combined with runoff from the mountains, will have the Flathead River in Columbia Falls hitting the 14-foot flood stage either Wednesday or Thursday.
As of Wednesday afternoon a flood watch had been issued for Flathead County and a flood warning was in effect for Lincoln County. A river-specific flood warning had been issued for the Flathead River throughout the valley. Although the rain will be coming to an end Friday, the continued run off from a large snowpack will keep the Flathead hovering around flood stage well into next week, according to Allegretto. If another rain system were to hit the area before it recedes, she said the river could easily rise above 14 feet.
Allegretto said that when the water does hit 14 feet that low areas along the Flathead River will likely flood and that people living nearby should be preparing, adding that things were getting “down to the wire.”
“The people right next to the river know it best,” she said. “We can predict, but they know it better.”
Allegretto said that other area rivers – including the Stillwater and Whitefish rivers – were also likely to hit flood stage, yet it may take a little more time for them to jump the banks. Even though rain has been consistent at times, Allegretto said that both rivers are “sluggish” and it takes time for them to react.
“The fact that it’s a sluggish river and it’s rising like that means it will continue,” she said.
Although no major damage from the flooding had been reported as of Wednesday afternoon, the effects of the recent rain were being felt throughout the region.
Jim Flint, research assistant in the Spotted Bear Ranger District of the Flathead National Forest, said the South Fork of the Flathead River was at the highest in its recorded history this week. Flint said the river usually hovers around 10 feet, but it had hit 14 feet by midweek. Although no roads had been impacted yet, Flint said that trail crews were unable to get into the field to work because of high running creeks that were impassable.
The Forest Service closed river access sites at West Glacier and Blankenship on Wednesday afternoon due to high water. Some sites at the Big Creek and Tally Lake Campgrounds were also closed.
Flint also had words of warning to those in the area.
“If anybody is out and about use caution along the streams and rivers,” he said.
On the other end of the Flathead Valley, the rain was impacting people in a different way. A washout north of Moiese had cut off rail service to Polson on Montana Rail Link’s line from Dixon. According to spokeswomen Lynda Frost a culvert had been washed out last week and the line has been temporarily shutdown until contractors can assess the problem. When train service would return was unknown.
“As long as it’s raining like this and temperatures are warm it’s hard to tell what problems are ahead,” she said.
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