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Updated: Snow makes first visit to southwest Montana; firefighters and foresters thankful

First snow of season in Butte

Cold, brisk winds have their way with the American flag atop the Original Mine headframe Monday morning as Butte got its first taste of winter. 

Folks in southwest Montana woke up to the season’s first snowfall Monday morning, and even though it was fairly light in Butte, Dillon was getting a really nice dose of early winter.

“It’s a heavy wet snow,” said Perry Shank, customer service manager at Rocky Mountain Supply in Dillon. “It’s getting pretty slushy on us.”

When asked how much snow they had gotten, Shank put the phone down for a moment then came back on and said, “Well, according to our outdoor guy, we’re looking at about 4 inches, but the manager is screaming that we’ve gotten more than that.”

Some welcomed the snow and cold, especially firefighters and foresters who have spent months battling wildfires in southwest Montana.

Most of the crews working the Trail Creek and Alder Creek fires around Wisdom and Wise River were being sent home, said Arlee Staley, a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.

Lightning sparked both fires on July 8, and even though longer, colder nights of late helped out, the snow might very well be the season-ending event firefighters were wanting. Most of the crews were being released, Staley said.

“There is still some clean-up stuff to do,” she said. “We are still keeping a couple of pieces of equipment … I know one of them is a grader, one of them is a backhoe, because there is still going to be some rehab work to do on these fires.

“But they are getting rid of the camp crews and dismantling the fire camp out here at the airport (near Wisdom),” she said. “So it’s going to be mostly local people (remaining) here in the Wisdom and Wise River districts.”

While Anaconda-Deer Lodge and Butte-Silver Bow counties were under winter weather advisories Monday, with snowfall only about an inch or so, parts of Beaverhead and Madison counties were under winter storm warnings.

Three to 5 inches were forecast in Dillon on Monday with another 1 to 2 inches possible overnight, according to the National Weather Service. Virginia City was expecting 3 to 7 inches Monday with 1 to 2 more possible into Tuesday morning.

Although warmer temperatures are on the way in southwest Montana later this week, Butte might have seen its last lows above freezing for a long time.

If not, those nights are certainly on borrowed time.

“In Butte, you might be done,” said Luke Robinson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula. “In some of the valleys around here (Missoula), like the Bitterroot and Flathead valleys, we’ll see some lows above freezing.

“At least for the next 10 days, your lows will be below freezing,” he said. “You can’t say for certain that you won’t see lows above 32 in the future for this season but it doesn’t look good.”

The lows in Butte the next four nights are expected to be in the teens to near 20, with 14 forecast overnight Tuesday into Wednesday.

The colder weather and snow were thanks to a broad trough of low-pressure over the Northwest U.S. that was pulling moisture in from the Southwest U.S. It was a “closed low” system, meaning — in layman’s terms — it was not moving out quickly.

“A lot of times it will sit over a region for a couple of days and sometimes longer,” Robinson said.

Robinson said the weather service has been in close touch with firefighters this wildfire season and this system was good news for them.

“They’ve been waiting for something like this,” he said.

Even before its arrival, the system was expected to further minimize activity at the Haystack Fire near Boulder, which has burned more than 24,000 acres. Smoldering and some fire creeping were anticipated to linger.

Although the worst appeared to be over at the fires near Wisdom and Wise River, Staley said there was still work to do.

“Any of the fire line they put in, whether it was hand line or mechanical line, they’re going to drag some debris back over that so hopefully it won’t erode when the spring runoff happens,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff like that that needs to be done, but were not sending a lot of people out during this weather.”

Light snow was possible in the region on Tuesday and widespread frost was forecast over the next several nights in Butte, but highs are expected to rebound into the 40s later this week with 50s likely this weekend.


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