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Avalanche blocks I-90 on Montana side of Lookout Pass

| January 9, 2022 1:00 AM

MISSOULA(AP) — Three small snowslides on Friday, and concerns there might be more, led the Montana Department of Transportation to close the westbound lanes of Interstate 90 near Lookout Pass overnight, while avalanche warnings were in place in western Montana and for the Cooke City area north of Yellowstone National Park, officials said.

Heavy snow fell over the last several days and more was forecast Friday, along with strong winds and some rain, leading to the warnings and treacherous road conditions in several areas of the state.

The snowslides west of St. Regis on Friday morning included one that covered the westbound lanes, the Montana Department of Transportation said.

Drivers of westbound vehicles shoveled a path through one of the slides and kept going, said Steve Felix, DOT maintenance chief for the Missoula area.

The driver of a semi tractor-trailer then tried to follow the shoveled path and got stuck, he said. Then the driver of another semi tried to move past the one that was stuck and also got stuck in the snow.

The snowslides were cleared by Friday afternoon and most vehicles were moved out of the area, with the possible exception of semi drivers who were sleeping in their trucks, Felix said.

A 33-mile (53 kilometer) stretch of westbound lanes, from St. Regis to the border of Idaho atop Lookout Pass, will be closed overnight due to concerns about further snowslides, Felix said. The agency, along with its avalanche expert, will reevaluate the snow conditions on Saturday, he said.

Eastbound traffic was moving over Lookout Pass, but with delays, the Montana Highway Patrol said.

In northwestern Montana, the avalanche danger was listed as high in the Whitefish Range, in the Flathead Range including a portion of Glacier National Park and in the Swan Range, the Flathead Avalanche Center said.

"Slabs of new and drifted snow will be thick and easily triggered by the weight of a person or snowmachine," the warning said. "In isolated areas, avalanches may break in weak layers of old snow near the ground. Travel in avalanche terrain in not recommended."

The avalanche danger was high in the Lolo Pass area, the southern Mission mountains along with the Rattlesnake and southern and central Bitterroot mountains, the West Central Montana Avalanche Center said. All elevations will be impacted by heavy snow and increased hazards.

"The likelihood of avalanches will increase with continued wind, snowfall, rising temperatures and rain at lower elevations," the West Central Montana Avalanche Center said.

The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center has also issued an avalanche warning for the wind-loaded slopes near Cooke City north of Yellowstone National Park. About 15 inches (38 centimeters) of snow has fallen since Thursday morning in the area where two Minnesota snowmobilers died in an avalanche on Dec. 27.

Strong winds created new snow drifts that were 2 to 4 feet (61 to 122 centimeters) deep and wind-loaded slopes were expected to experience avalanches, the Gallatin center said.

"If you get onto any steep slope, even one that isn't wind-loaded, expect to trigger a slide beneath the new snow," the warning states. "If you need added incentive to stay out of avalanche terrain, remember that there are weak layers lower in the snowpack that could break even deeper."

The city of Missoula and its Office of Emergency Management said Thursday officials were "exercising caution" in issuing an urban avalanche warning for Mount Jumbo, closing the mountain to recreation. The closure also applies to private property.

In February 2014, an avalanche that started on Mount Jumbo destroyed a house, burying two residents. One of them died later died of her injuries, while her husband was hospitalized for weeks.

The 2014 slide also buried an 8-year-old boy and partially buried his older sister as they played in the back yard of another residence at the base of Mount Jumbo. The girl was able to dig herself out. The boy, who was found an hour later, survived because he ended up in an air pocket.

The Montana Department of Transportation on Friday reported strong winds and severe driving conditions in the Browning area — east of Glacier National Park — and black ice was reported on roads in extreme northwestern Montana, near the Idaho border.

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