Blackfeet Reservation Rides Out Record-setting Fall Blizzard

Preliminary data show that 52 inches fell in Browning over the weekend

By PATRICK REILLY of the Missoulian

EAST GLACIER PARK — Jim Knott’s third winter in Montana came early.

In fall 2017, the dentist sold his practice in Texas and moved to a property on Heart Butte Cutoff, a rugged road off U.S. Highway 2 on the east side of Glacier National Park. This weekend, he and his neighbors were socked in by the area’s heaviest September snowfall on record.

“We started working that dadgum tractor out of here at 9 this morning,” he said, pointing to an orange tractor parked outside his garage, a few dozen feet up the driveway, “and finally got it out at noon.”

This was after several previous runs clearing — and re-clearing — the mile-and-a-half access road that Knott and his neighbors use to reach U.S. 2. The winds had been fierce, and the tractor’s battery gave out at one point. But speaking with the Missoulian Monday afternoon, Knott took the snowstorm in stride.

“Here we are with this 54 inches, and it started a little bit too early, but here it is.”

Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front is prone to heavy snowfalls, but not in early fall. The National Weather Service’s preliminary data show that 52 inches fell in Browning over the weekend, according to meteorologist Jane Fogleman. That’s well above the previous two-day record for September of 36 inches in 1908.

“Browning and the Blackfeet Nation Reservation were right in the bull’s-eye of this snowstorm,” said Robert DesRosier, the Blackfeet Nation’s emergency manager, over the phone Monday. For the past four days, he and his colleagues had been working out of a temporary command center in tribal headquarters, coordinating plowing and emergency response on this 1.5 million-acre Indian reservation. “It’s been quite an adventure,” he said.

“We’ve had over 40 ambulance calls since Friday,” DesRosier continued, far more than a typical weekend. “Most of those ambulance calls required a tractor to lead them to the scene of the request.”

The snow started falling in East Glacier Park, just down the road from Browning around 9 p.m. Friday, remembered Knott and one of his neighbors, Kellie Miller, who was helping shovel the driveway.

By Sunday afternoon, 4 feet had been reported in Browning, and both Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and the Blackfeet Nation had declared emergencies. U.S. 2, the area’s main artery, was closed, and the American Red Cross had set up a temporary shelter at Blackfeet United Methodist Parish in Browning.

“At 1:30 (p.m.) last Sunday we opened the shelter,” said volunteer Scott Fairfield. “By 5 o’clock, we had 10 clients at the shelter. By 9 o’clock, we were up to 22, 21 clients who stayed the night.”

It was a tight squeeze, said Rayola Running Crane, the parish’s local licensed pastor. “Some of them were stranded motorists, some of them were people who couldn’t get back to their homes — they were (living) in Browning itself and couldn’t get back . and some were the homeless that we took care of.”

One client who’d gotten stranded while hitchhiking walked 5 miles through the storm. Running Crane took her to Browning’s Indian Health Services Hospital to be treated for frostbite.

During the storm, the hospital had gone on transit status, only accepting emergency patients, said Kendall Flint, a physician there. He needed to plow his East Glacier driveway out with a tractor, but had been able to make his rounds as usual on Saturday. “Fortunately there are folks who live (near the hospital) in Browning who are able to be on call,” he said.

The hospital has two backup generators, so power loss was never a concern. Flint and other neighbors reported a few flickers in their home, but no lasting outages.

Heavy snowfalls, they agree, are a fact of life out here. “It’s not that unusual for us to have heavy, intense winter weather,” Flint said. “The thing that’s unusual for us is (that) it’s September, and it was a big snow for this time of year.”

The snowfall came just late enough to spare business at Serrano’s, a popular Mexican restaurant in East Glacier. Co-owners Jeff and Stefanie Zarycki closed up for the season on Friday. “I wouldn’t say there’s any damage,” Jeff said. “Just a lot of snow.”

Monday morning, he said, “there was a drift in here which was over my car.” But several hours of sunlight, temperatures in the 20s and shoveling had done their job. The streets of East Glacier were muddy and rutted, but passable, and U.S. 2 — closed Friday night — was bone-dry. Temperatures are projected to reach the mid-30s Tuesday, and stay in the 30s and low 40s for the remainder of the week.

“You know it’s warm when they close the road and now it’s bare,” said John Ray, owner of East Glacier’s Circle R motel. The Browning shelter closed Monday afternoon; the Montana Department of Transportation said it had about 12 snowplows, three snow blowers and other heavy equipment in the area, and was working to clear U.S. Highway 89 north of Browning and State Highway 213 near Cut Bank by Monday evening.

“We’re going to . let Mother Nature clean it back up. It looks to me like it’s going pretty fast,” said DesRosier, the emergency manager. There wasn’t much concern about flooding, he said, but “we do have sandbags in our cache if we need them.”

Back on Heart Butte Road, where residents had plowed, held potlucks, and run extension cords to Knott’s stranded tractor, things were finally clearing out. “A lot of it’s thawed,” Knott said. “It’s down to that wet snow now, so it’s tough shoveling.”

“Thank God,” he said, “there’s five people here with tractors.”

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