Massive Windstorm Downs Trees, Leaves Thousands Without Power

Flathead Electric Cooperative reported 155 outages affecting more than 16,000 members across their entire coverage area

By Micah Drew
An uprooted tree in Happy Valley after a strong windstorm on Jan. 13, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 9:21 a.m. Thursday morning.

A major windstorm tracked across northwestern Montana on Wednesday, leaving thousands of households and businesses without power in Flathead and Lincoln counties.

According to Flathead Electric Cooperative (FEC) spokesperson Wendy Ostrom Price, more than 16,000 homes and businesses across the cooperative’s coverage area were affected by more than 155 power outages resulting from the storm.

Outages were reported across the Flathead Valley, west along U.S. Highway 2 to Libby, east to Glacier National Park and Essex, and south along Montana Highway 83 to Swan Lake.

According to an update from FEC at 6:22 a.m. on Thursday, crews had restored power to roughly half of the 16,000 members, “mainly in the areas of Libby, West Valley, Hungry Horse, Bigfork and Columbia Falls, which were the first areas reported hit with winds and trees downing power lines.”

“Many trees remain down across our service territory along with broken power poles and debris,” FEC stated. “Clean-up efforts continue in order to restore power to those remaining without. This will be ongoing at least through tomorrow. Four, four-man crews from out of Valley will be joining Co-op crews today to assist in this effort.”

All available crews are working to restore power throughout the valley, but Ostrom Price said that FEC expects expects prolonged outages lasting through Thursday in some areas due to the sheer size of the storm.

“It’s been going crazy; it’s all hands on deck,” Ostrom Price said on Wednesday. “The first outage began at 7 a.m. but as soon as crews got a line up, another tree would take out another line. That’s been the consistent pattern all day.”

Several times throughout the day downed power lines stalled traffic on Montana Highway 83 and U.S. Highway 93.

“We’ve had storms that have left more members without power, but usually outages are concentrated in smaller areas,” Ostrom Price said. “This is spread out and relentless.”

According to the National Weather Service, peak wind gusts of 101 mph were reported on Mount Aeneas at 7 a.m. and gusts of over 90 mph were reported from a station at Hornet Mountain.

The Flathead Avalanche Center issued a level four (high danger) avalanche warning for the Whitefish, Flathead and Swan ranges as well as in Glacier National park. The warning expires on Thursday.

Due to the high winds, ski areas across northwestern Montana opted to remain closed or operate in very limited capacity on Wednesday. Blacktail Ski Resort in Lakeside did not open while Whitefish Mountain Resort closed most lifts, including Chair 1, after gusts exceeding 45 mph were reported at the summit of Big Mountain. Lookout Pass operated a half capacity and Missoula Snowbowl remained closed after wind gusts of 125 mph were reported on nearby mountains.

Ostrom Price reminds all residents to be cautious around any downed power lines and treat all lines as live and dangerous.

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