GREAT FALLS — Hurricane-force gusts and powerful sustained winds rocked areas of Montana on Saturday, notably along and east of the northern Rocky Mountain Front.
The winds began picking up on Friday night, and by Saturday peak gusts exceeded 80 miles per hour in some areas, and even topped 100 mph in Glacier County.
The winds caused major travel troubles and toppled trees in and around Great Falls, causing "brown-outs" along some roads, knocking over utility poles, and triggering power outages to thousands of people. NorthWestern Energy has been working since the outages began on Saturday afternoon to get all service restored, but has not yet been able to provide an estimated time for full restoration to all customers.
The National Weather Service in Great Falls reports that the Deep Creek weather station south of Browning recorded a peak wind gust of 106 mph. Babb was hit by a peak gust of 92 mph, and Browning recorded an 89 mph gust. At Great Falls International AIrport, the peak gust was 82 mph, and in Choteau, a gust of 75 mph was recorded.
The powerful winds kicked up dust along several major roads, triggering several crashes along US Highway 87 between Great Falls and Fort Benton. Just after 5 p.m., the Cascade County Sheriff's Office closed US Highway 87, and Highway 89 from the Sand Coulee junction to Belt. The Sheriff's Office said: "There have been numerous vehicle accidents with injuries, these crashes involve two Sheriff’s patrol cars. Two deputies and one citizen are being treated for minor injuries." Just after 10 p.m., Sheriff Jesse Slaughter announced that the roads have re-opened.
The strong winds and dry conditions also led to several reported grassland fires. We received word of a wildland fire near the Spion Kop Wind Farm between Raynesford and Geyser, and also a ranch fire near Montague, between Highwood and Geraldine. There have not been any reports of injuries in any of these incidents. The Montana Department of Transportation said on Saturday night that the Lode Road Fire, which started around 7:30 p.m. north of Harlowton, has become hazardous enough to close the stretch of Highway 191 between the towns of Garneill and Harlowton. As of 11 p.m., the agency is reporting that there is poor visibility due to smoke in the area.
Traffic was also hampered by the weather, as the winds knocked out traffic signals for several hours in parts of Great Falls, including along a large stretch of 10th Avenue South.
(1st REPORT, 10:46 am) Powerful winds are once again rocking parts of north-central Montana, particularly along and east of the northern Rocky Mountain Front.
On Saturday morning, the National Weather Service in Great Falls reported a gust of 106 miles per hour at the Deep Creek weather station in Glacier County.
Babb recorded a wind gust of 92 miles per hour, and Browning had one recorded at 89 miles per hour.
Other recorded gusts include Cut Bank Airport at 78 mph, Choteau at 74 mph, Rogers Pass at 65 mph, and Great Falls and Cascade both at 63 mph.
The strong winds are expected to continue throughout the day, and a Red Flag Warning will be in effect for much of the area throughout Saturday. The combination of warm, dry air, coupled with strong winds and minimal snow cover will lead to an increased risk of grassland fires. The NWS said: "Please be mindful of any activity that could create a spark under these critical fire weather conditions."