HELENA, Mont. — A powerful winter storm socked much of Montana with a wave of heavy snowfall on Sunday, with weekend totals climbing to 40 inches in some places, and breaking century-old daily records.
Never mind that it has only just turned to fall. Gov. Steve Bullock declared a winter emergency as cars skidded off highways, communities lost power and farmers despaired at the damage to crops that were still in the ground.
“It’s a February storm in September,” said Jeff Mow, the superintendent of Glacier National Park in the state’s mountainous northwest. “We’re used to this kind of storm, just not this time of year.”
The snowfall totals were staggering for any time of year: 40 inches in Browning since Friday, and 38 inches in St. Mary.
Records were tumbling across the state. On Saturday, the National Weather Service recorded snow at the Missoula International Airport. There had not been a trace of snow recorded on any Sept. 28 since 1893.
Great Falls was blanketed by 9.7 inches of snow on Saturday, topping a daily snowfall record of 6.1 inches that had been set in 1954. On Sunday morning, another 4.3 inches of snow fell there.
“We have very wet and heavy snow, which has compacted down, making it look less than 14 inches,” said Thomas Pepe, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Great Falls. “But we’re just getting into round two of snowfall — it’s starting to intensify again. It’s pretty bleak out there.”
Montanans are no strangers to snow, but the early arrival of this storm was a test even for those with decades of experience with harsh winters.
“In the 20 years that I’ve been here, I have never felt as much angst among my community,” said Cassie Barnett, 50, who lives near Fairfield in northwestern Montana. “The scariest thing is for our neighbors, who are farmers. The crops they had in the ground are now buried in the snow.”
The snow drifts were so high, Barnett said, that when her 6-foot-tall husband went to feed their chickens, the snow reached his chest.
“When the snow goes over my knee-high snow boots, I know to just stop trying,” she said.
For ranchers and farmers, the snowfall was much more than a nuisance, setting off a scramble to protect livestock.
“It’s rougher today than it was yesterday,” Jack Holden, who works with 600 to 800 head of cattle on his 4,000-acre ranch in Valier, said on Sunday. “It’s very tough to get around even with a four-wheel drive. We’re having to use tractors.”
Holden said that he was doing what he could to protect his cattle, and his livelihood, but that neighboring properties that relied on crops were not as fortunate. For example, farmers involved in the burgeoning hemp industry had not even harvested their crops yet, he said.
“It’s going to have a strong economic impact on the area,” Holden said.
Mow, the superintendent of Glacier National Park, said that he hoped the park’s scenic Going to the Sun Highway could reopen in October, after the snow melted.
“Our weather goes from one extreme to another, so it could get warm again,” he said. “We have to play with what nature sends us.”