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Did an 'earthquake sky' on Wednesday signal a temblor on the way? Not likely, seismologist says

Did an 'earthquake sky' on Wednesday signal a temblor on the way? Not likely, seismologist says

Within minutes of the 5.8-magnitude earthquake just outside of Lincoln, Facebook lit up with chatter about the earthquake felt across western Montana, but the only damage reported locally occurred to the Napton Apartment building at 25 E. Granite Street.

Butte-Silver Bow Fire Chief Jeff Miller said some bricks and part of the façade on the Napton Apartment building fell down onto the sidewalk below, but that was the only structural damage.

Miller said a tiny bit of plaster also fell down inside the BSB courthouse. He thinks the plaster might have been a "patch job" from previous repair.

Montana Resources' vice president of Human Resources Mike McGivern said the mine didn't experience any damage. The Berkeley Pit's walls remained stable through the shaking. The mine haul drivers didn't even feel the quake, according to McGivern.

NorthWestern Energy reported a power outage at the earthquake's epicenter, in Lincoln, about 62 miles "as the crow flies" north of Butte. Some Helena residents also reported the smell of gas after the earthquake hit at 12:30 a.m. Thursday.

But NorthWestern Energy spokesperson Butch Larcombe said power was restored in Lincoln within about 45 minutes, and no leaks were found in Helena.

Larcombe said there have been no other reports of power outages or gas leaks in western Montana. BSB Director of Emergency Management Dan Dennehy also confirmed there have been no reports of gas or propane leaks in Butte.

Dillon, the town where the last earthquake above a 5.0-magnitude hit 12 years ago, reported no damage. But Dillon Fire Chief Darrin Morast said the town "definitely felt it."

Anaconda Fire Captain Scott DeMarois said Anaconda also felt Thursday morning's quake, but the town had no reported damage.

People all around Butte, however, talked about the quake on the street and on Facebook in the early morning hours of Thursday and throughout the work day.

Resident David Abrams commented on Facebook after the quake hit that the chandelier in his bedroom shook and he heard car alarms "firing up" all over the Flat. Abrams lives on the 1900 block of Argyle Street.

"The ground slides around like Jell-O," Abrams wrote on his Facebook page.

Others expressed initial shock or fear, and some reported their animals behaving strangely just minutes before the quake.

One Butte resident, Debbie Shea, told The Montana Standard Thursday that the "earthquake sky" earlier in the evening, close to sunset, might have also been a harbinger of what was to come.

The sky to the north-northwest of Butte was a luminous, intensely bright shade of pink.

That sky seemed ominous to Shea in part because her ex-husband, Dan Shea, remembers what he called an "earthquake sky" the evening of the "big one" that hit near Yellowstone Park in 1959. The quake, a magnitude 7.3 centered at the Madison Valley's Hebgen Lake, killed 28 people and caused approximately $11 million in damage to the area. It is the biggest reported earthquake to hit Montana.

A boy of 10 at the time, Dan said that he and a friend were walking up Excelsior Street from a baseball game that particular evening when an older gentleman waved them over to talk to them from his front porch.

Dan said the elderly man pointed out the sky, which Dan described as "very strange," "red," and "moving really fast." The elderly man reportedly called it "an earthquake sky" and warned them an earthquake was coming.

"And sure enough, there was an earthquake that night," Dan said.

Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology Seismologist Mike Stickney said he wasn't aware of an "earthquake sky," but he said there are some fairly credible reports of lights in the sky around the time an earthquake hits. Stickney said most rock has grains of quartz in it, and quartz has electrical properties. When rocks are under pressure and squeezed in the right way, they may give off energy.

But Stickney added that such earthquake lights have been reported when earthquakes are above a 7.0 magnitude and cause a surface rupture. Thursday's early-morning quake was centered deep within the earth and was not big enough to cause a surface rupture.

Stickney said that while the phenomenon spotted close to sunset in Butte didn't seem likely to be connected to the earthquake that hit hours later, he wouldn't entirely rule it out.

"I've tried to learn to say 'nothing is impossible,'" Stickney said.


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