Ravalli County residents were busy Tuesday digging out from a record two-day snow storm that left some folks snowbound and others nursing sore backs from spending too much time with a shovel in their hands.
While most of the communities from Florence to Hamilton shattered records for the amount of snow in a two-day period, Stevensville was the big winner with 26 inches.
National Weather Service meteorologist Bob Nester said the last time that community even came close to reaching that amount was back in 1911. Hamilton’s 25 inches topped a two-day record dating back to 1895.
The record snowfall closed all schools in the Bitterroot Valley both Monday and Tuesday. County offices were operating with skeleton staff Tuesday and the City of Hamilton called a snow emergency Monday asking people to remove their cars from vital routes.
“Our employees are desperately trying to get all the snow moved across town,” said Hamilton Mayor Dominic Farrenkopf Tuesday morning. “We have been asking people to stay home if they don’t need to go out. The intersections are still bad. People are getting caught there.”
The city’s Committee of the Whole was cancelled Tuesday evening. The city’s offices didn’t open until 1 p.m.
“It’s going to take us some time to get all this snow moved,” Farrenkopf said. “We’re asking everyone to be good neighbors. If you don’t see your neighbor for a day or two, it would be nice to check on them. If you can help them shovel, that would be great, too.”
Farrenkopf asked Hamilton residents to keep the fire hydrants on their property dug out.
Ravalli County Commission Chair Jeff Burrows said the county allowed its departments to let some employees to stay home due the challenging travel conditions.
“We left it up to the discretion of the department heads to decide who needed to come in depending on their proximity to the courthouse,” Burrows said. “It wasn’t a good day for anyone to be making a long commute. More people on the road creates more challenges for emergency services and for plowing.”
While there have been a lot of slide-offs and other minor crashes, Ravalli County Sheriff Steve Holton said there had not been any accidents with injuries.
“We’ve seen a lot of people stuck in the snow,” Holton said.
One of Holton’s deputies had a close call near Woodside Crossing Monday when he rear-ended a semi-trailer tractor truck. The Montana Highway Patrol is investigating that incident.
“Everyone was OK,” Holton said. “He did end up getting banged up some. On Monday, the snow was really kicking up on the roads. You couldn’t see who was in front of you until you were right on top of them. We just keep pushing the message that if you don’t have to go anywhere, stay home. If you have to go somewhere, go slow.”
Ravalli County Road Administrator John Horat said county crews were focused Tuesday on getting roads travelling east and west cleared first. When possible, the crews are also opening up the roads running north and south.
“We are a little bit ahead of where we were yesterday, but not by much,” Horat said Tuesday. “There are some roads that we haven’t made it to yet. People are having a hard time getting on some of those roads at this point.”
Horat said the county’s crews are coordinating with both state and private plowing operators in an effort to get the roadways and parking lots cleared.
“Everyone is working together, but it’s a big system and it takes time,” he said. “If people can just drive when it’s absolutely necessary, that would be helpful. It is especially challenging when we are trying to clear intersections where the snow has to be moved back and forth.”
In Stevensville, crews have plowed and sanded the equivalent of over 200 miles of road in the town.
"Our crews worked long and hard to stay on top of the snow," said Stevensville Mayor Brandon Dewey. "Crews will continue to clear as much snow as possible, including removal of snow berms so we can may room for the next storm expected to drop another six inches of snow throughout the rest of the week."
To expedite that process, residents are asked not to park in the roadway on Park Avenue, Chilcot Street and Main Street so snow removal equipment can work efficiently.
NorthWestern Energy urged homeowners to ensure their natural gas meters and all furnace and appliance vents were free from snow and ice.
Blocked vents can result in the loss of heat or buildup of deadly carbon monoxide in homes and other structures. Some furnace vents are located on roofs. Gas meters and regulators that are covered in snow can freeze up and interrupt natural gas into a home or business.
Hamilton Postmaster Mike Stahl said the inclement weather was creating all sorts of challenges in getting the mail delivered.
“We are trying to get everything delivered that we can,” Stahl said. “We are at the point now that if we can’t get into the boxes, we are not delivering the mail.”
Every mail delivery person has up to 800 boxes to deliver to daily. Stahl said if they have to get out of their vehicle to deliver to a quarter of those boxes, their route couldn’t be completed.
“We desperately need the public’s help when we’re faced with this kind of mess,” he said. “Monday was a bad day. There were quite a few deliveries that we couldn’t make.”
People with rural type boxes need to keep the snow cleared enough so the driver can get in and out safely.
“If the snow in front of the boxes isn’t cleared, the drivers will get stuck and that impacts everyone else,” Stahl said. “We tell our people that if the roads aren’t plowed and it doesn’t look passable, to skip the whole road if they have to.”
The same goes for home delivery in town.
“If the steps aren’t shoveled, we tell them not to go up the steps,” he said. “Safety is our paramount concern. We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
For many Bitterroot residents, mail delivery may be their least concern.
Longtime Bitterroot resident Susan Hatch was snowed in at a friend’s home up Christensen Creek in the West Fork after nearly 30 inches of snow fell over the two-day period.
“Up here, people know that winter is coming so they stock up on groceries, dog food and other essentials,” Hatch said. “Right now, we’re going to see if we can find someone to bring up a tractor and plow us out.
“The only difference with this storm is how late it arrived,” she said. “Normally we see the most snow around Christmas time. This year, we had some days that were close to 60 in December and now we have to deal with this.”
Scott Grasser of Lost Trail/Powder Mountain couldn’t be happier to see the snow stack up.
“Thursday is going to be an epic powder day up here,” Grasser said. “Snow is our business. We know how to deal with it. We’re going to open and be happy to see people up having fun.”
On Tuesday, Grasser measured about 18 inches of new snow at the ski hill’s parking lot. That’s on top of the 18 inches of snow that fell last week.
“This was the biggest storm that we’ve had this year,’ Grasser said. “We’ll have the beginning and intermediate trails groomed like always and all the double black diamond and some intermediate trails will be left with a lot of powder for people to enjoy.”
The skill hill is open Thursday to Sunday every week.
The snow now covering the Bitterroot Valley isn’t going away anytime soon.
“At least through the middle of next week, we’re looking at low temperatures in the single digits and highs in the mid to upper 20s,” Nester said. “There is no indication in the 14-day outlook of any big warm up.”
The same atmospheric river flowing over arctic air that brought this last snowfall is expected to crash together again on Wednesday and Thursday. This time, Nester said it shouldn’t pack quite as big a punch.
“We will probably see snow in the range of two to five inches, perhaps more if you happen to be in the right spot,” he said.