Massive Avalanche Plugs River, Closes Highway and Railroad Near Essex

By Beacon Staff

ESSEX – Tons of snow, trees and debris came down a creek drainage near Essex on Thursday morning, plugging the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The avalanche was one of three major slides in John F. Stevens Canyon along U.S. Highway 2 that closed both the road and BNSF Railway’s main line through Northwest Montana.

On Thursday afternoon, BNSF started conducting emergency avalanche control in the area. The railroad company had received a special-use permit from Glacier National Park to use an “avalauncher,” or explosive charges, delivered by a helicopter, but only during daylight hours. The mitigation technique uses a cylinder suspended from a helicopter that sends a controlled pressure wave from the sudden combustion of hydrogen to trigger the slide.

U.S. Highway 2 was closed between West Glacier and East Glacier from 2 to 4:30 p.m. while the railroad conducted the avalanche control.

“We are working with BNSF Railway to create safe conditions for their employees and passengers along the southern boundary of the park and will continue to work with them to find long-term solutions,” said Superintendent Jeff Mow. “This year’s highly variable weather conditions are resulting in an unstable snowpack.”

One of the largest slides came down at the Goat Lick Overlook, just east of Essex, and went under a highway bridge before blocking the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The slide flooded the lowlands to the east of it.

The slide drew onlookers and gawkers shortly before U.S. Highway 2 was closed at 2 p.m. Ed McMillian, who has lived near Pinnacle since 1996, said he had never seen a slide as large or as powerful.

“It’s amazing. It’s almost dry on this side and it’s filling up on that side,” he said. “It’s Mother Nature, you can’t control it.”

According to Glacier spokesperson Denise Germann, the Park Service plans on monitoring the blocked drainage in the coming days.

Two other major slides came down in the canyon, known to locals as “Avalanche Alley.” One of the slides covered a BNSF snow shed. According to the railroad, it was unclear how long the tracks would be closed.

Thursday’s slides were the second series of avalanches to close the railroad this week. Earlier this week, the tracks were closed for 12 hours when a slide nearly seven feet deep covered both main line tracks in the same area.

MDT officials also received reports of a rockslide on Montana Highway 37, nine miles north of the Libby Dam. The slide was blocking the northbound lane and crews cleared the incident late Thursday afternoon.

Mix of Weather Brings Flooding, Slides Across Montana
GREAT FALLS (AP) — A mix of winter weather and warming temperatures across the state led to avalanches, treacherous driving conditions, school delays and widespread flooding Thursday.

In southwestern Montana, rapid snowmelt sent water running over the highways near Boulder, Whitehall, Toston, Manhattan and Livingston. Dozens of residents of a Livingston condominium remained evacuated Thursday, while others put sandbags near their homes.

School buses did not run in Great Falls or Havre on Thursday morning, and several schools delayed their start time or canceled classes in the Havre area. Montana State-Northern didn’t hold its first classes until 11 a.m.

Freezing rain fell across parts of north-central Montana on Thursday.

“City roads, power lines, sidewalks, everything is coated in ice,” National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Brusda told the Great Falls Tribune.

Roads from Cascade north to the Canadian border and from Great Falls east to the North Dakota border were icy in the morning, but by afternoon, only highways in the Havre area were icy, according to the Department of Transportation.

The frontage road along U.S. Highway 89 east of Great Falls was closed temporarily due to a two-vehicle crash that claimed the life of a student at C.M. Russell High School in Great Falls.

In southern Montana, the National Weather Service issued a flood advisory for several areas, and local flooding was reported in 13 counties. Flood warnings were issued in Gallatin, Park counties.

The city of Livingston declared a state of emergency after melting snow flooded creeks and ditches and sent water running down city streets.

The flooding started at about 8 p.m. Wednesday, forcing dozens of residents to flee a condominium. About 50 of them remained evacuated Thursday. Residents of the south side of Livingston were encouraged to sandbag in front of their homes, and the Livingston City Center was open to those who were evacuated due to the flooding.

Warm temperatures over the past several days have caused snow from last week’s strong storm to melt.

“There’s nowhere for that water to go because the ground is frozen,” Aaron Gilstad, a NWS meteorologist in Billings, told the Livingston Enterprise. “A lot of the culverts have frozen up, which would normally help get that water out of the area.

Lewis and Clark County commissioners declared an emergency due to flooding in the Helena Valley.

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