Winter Storm Prompts Road Closures as Emergency Officials Urge Caution

Bitter cold, high winds and whiteout conditions have prompted one county road closure and shut down operations on Big Mountain as a powerful winter storm arrives in earnest

By Beacon Staff
Blizzard conditions and temperatures around zero in downtown Kalispell on Jan. 11, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

This story was updated at 1:03 p.m.

A strong winter storm has converged on the Flathead Valley, sending temperatures plummeting, blowing snow in every direction, and leading to some road closures and event cancellations around the region.

Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino said he’s received multiple reports of low-to-zero visibility on local roadways and warned residents to stay off the roads today “unless absolutely necessary.”

“We are asking the public to stay off of the roads today, if at all possible,” Heino shared on the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. “We are receiving reports of zero visibility, high winds, whiteout conditions, and heavy snow throughout the valley. The county and city’s roads departments and law enforcement are working hard to keep up with road conditions and traffic concerns.”

If residents must travel, Heino urged them to call their destination prior to leaving to ensure it is open. He also warned motorists to be watchful for emergency vehicles and road closures.

“Flathead County Roads and Sheriff’s Department, as well as the cities, are doing everything they can, but the high winds and whiteout conditions will make it difficult,” according to the sheriff.

Earlier in the day, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and the Road and Bridge Department issued a road closure along a section of Hodgson Road from Trumble Creek Road to just east of Whitefish Stage Road due to blowing snow. The county road department installed gates earlier this year to prevent traffic during any closures.

In addition, county officials are reporting low visibility at the intersection of Highway 40 and U.S. Highway 93 in Whitefish. Motorists are urged to drive with extreme caution if they must be on the roads.

By mid-afternoon, Kalispell city officials had closed Four Mile Drive between Stillwater and West Springcreek Road due to the severe weather conditions.

Blizzard conditions and temperatures around zero in downtown Kalispell on Jan. 11, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Trent Smith, a National Weather Service (NWS) forecaster in Missoula, on Wednesday detailed the arctic cold front and snow predicted to converge on the northern Rockies today through Saturday, delivering snow accumulations between 10 and 14 inches in the Flathead Valley on Thursday while blasting the valley with high winds before yielding to sub-zero temperatures, including a low of minus 19 degrees Fahrenheit in Kalispell on Friday morning. Check out a video of the entire NWS weather briefing here.

“That arctic air is going to be bringing in some of the coldest air that we’ve seen in several decades across the region,” Smith said. “Just some extreme cold air.”

At Whitefish Mountain Resort, the National Weather Service is reporting a high of minus 2 degrees, with lows in the afternoon dropping to minus 21 degrees. Wind chill values maybe be as low as minus 54 degrees. The high winds and extreme cold halted operations of all the resort’s operations by noon, except for Chair 6 and the two Easy Carpets. By 12:50 p.m., the resort announced that all lifts and terrain had been closed for the day, and evaluations were ongoing for what could be online Friday.

The IFSA freeride competition scheduled for this weekend has been canceled due to the inclement conditions. Resort officials will continue to monitor the weather and limit terrain and chairlift opportunities throughout the weekend as needed to keep riders and staff safe.

Officials with Flathead Electric Cooperative (FEC) issued an “extreme cold weather forecast” and encouraged members to prepare for prolonged, frigid temperatures and potential power outages. FEC also issued a notice urging members to sign up for text automated text message alerts.

“The coming days are expected to bring prolonged, extremely hazardous cold temperatures to the Flathead Valley. Preparing your home, your business, your family, and your animals for these temperatures is essential,” according to FEC’s website. “Although cold temperatures do not generally cause power outages on their own, outages are always a possibility. Cars hit power poles nearly every day, winds blow and trees fall down, and small animals and birds damage electrical connections — anything can happen.”

Blizzard conditions and temperatures around zero in downtown Kalispell on Jan. 11, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The message continued: “When a power outage occurs during extremely low temperatures, power restoration can be a longer and more challenging process. Your Co-op urges members to ensure that they are as prepared as possible in the event of prolonged power loss during life-threateningly cold temperatures.”

Visit the FEC website for a list of safety tips in case of an outage and go to the outage center to keep tabs on service interruptions.

By early Thursday afternoon FEC’s online outage map showed a total of five outages in their service area affecting about 1,065 customers, with nearly 900 of those customers located between Somers and Lakeside, where an outage started at 12:26 p.m.

The Montana Highway Patrol is tracking statewide incidents along the state’s major roadways here. The Montana Department of Transportation’s web cameras reveal blustery road conditions across western Montana in real time, including in West Glacier on U.S. Highway 2.

By 11 a.m. Thursday, Columbia Falls police, fire and city street crews were following their normal procedures when this kind of weather hits, according to City Manager Susan Nicosia.

“You know, we’re hoping that people stay home unless they absolutely have to be out,” she said. “So far, no interruption to city services.”

In anticipation of the winter storm’s arrival, the city website had displayed an alert atop its homepage encouraging people to “PREPARE FOR THE ARCTIC BLAST.” The alert linked to a page with information about how to prepare for the cold front and the possibility of power outages, as well as advice and information from the city water department and street department.

Nicosia said that the city is aware that any time temperatures drop this low there is the possibility of a main break, and so city crews were remaining diligent.

By late Thursday morning, plows had already gone through Talbot Road and Veteran Drive, an area near Columbia Falls Junior High School that is known have issues with snow drifts.

“We’re prepared. We’re Montanans. We’re used to this,” Nicosia said.

Karl Weeks, the fire chief for the Columbia Falls Fire Department, emphasized that visibility in the area was limited. In some instances, Weeks estimated visibility had fallen to between 10 and 20 feet. Speaking at around 12:30 p.m., the fire chief said his department had recently been dispatched to a report of low hanging power lines in an area on the north end of town, but that otherwise they had not had a lot of weather-related calls so far.

The following Flathead County services will be unavailable on Friday:

  • Agency on Aging dining room on 11th street in Kalispell. They have signs up and social media posts stating they will not be serving lunch; however, if someone does show up, they are prepared to provide them a take-home meal. 
  • Meals on Wheels will not be delivering food Friday. All recipients have been called/notified, and drivers are taking extra meals today on their deliveries. We would like to encourage our residents to check in on the elderly during this dangerous cold.
  • The 4H Food Tasting at the Fairgrounds has been canceled.
  • The Glacier Challenge, which is an annual regional gymnastics competition has also been canceled.

School officials announced today that all basketball games and the school play at Flathead High School have been canceled due to the winter storm. The play, “Flora and Ulysses” has been rescheduled for next Tuesday. The basketball games against Big Sky High School will be rescheduled at a later date.

Editor’s Note: This story will be updated throughout the day Thursday.

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