Tempestuous storm closes schools and roads

Photo by Josh McQuillan Vehicles are escorted towards Joliet after being stranded for some hours, Feb 3.

High winds brought chaos to many roads in Carbon County in the last week, forcing Highway 212 to be closed twice, Feb. 3 and Feb. 8.

By far the worst was last Friday’s snarl that left drivers to deal with icy conditions, white outs and gargantuan snowdrifts as emergency services and county snowplows attempted to right the situation.

All schools across the county were closed and evening basketball games canceled as the wintry grip tightened on the area.

For many people it was an unprecedented day with Tom Kohley, Carbon County’s Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator, calling it “historic.”

The first calls to the Carbon County Dispatch office came at 2 a.m. with a vehicle stuck in a snowdrift on Zumbrun Road west of Fox. A tow truck drove out there and the vehicle was pulled out by 3 a.m.

This was merely the precursor of things to come as the floodgates of calls opened at 5 a.m. with a driver stuck in the middle of a road in Roberts in a whiteout that left them unsure of where the road was. Another call from Roberts came in of a stranded motorist who told a plow driver he’d wait out the storm. A slide off was reported 9 minutes later again in Roberts with a vehicle in a snow drift two miles from home. A further three calls for motorist assists came in between 6 a.m. and 6:35 a.m. At just after 7 a.m. a motorist called in stranded at the Roberts rest area with 6 other vehicles.

One of the first in the scene was Montana Highway Trooper Bill Bullock who got the call at 5 a.m. about multiple slide offs between MM 84 and MM 90 on Highway 212.

Through all of Trooper Bullock’s decades of experience he had “never seen anything like it.”

When he arrived on scene even the state plow had stopped because the route was blocked with vehicles and snowdrifts.

“He couldn’t pass safely, so the road closed itself,” he said.

This was enough for the Montana Highway Patrol and Carbon County Commissioner Doug Tucker to close down Highway 212 at 6 a.m. from Junction 412 just southwest of Joliet to Red Lodge but leave it open only for emergency services. The wind and icy conditions had made the area between Roberts and Boyd and from south of Joliet to the north entrance of Red Lodge impassable. Red Lodge Police Department assisted the County in informing people that Highway 212 was not passable from Blanchard Butte Road, north of Red Lodge, to Joliet although they were letting local traffic through to Roberts.

According to Trooper Bullock he went ahead of a snowplow and had to “inch” his way down the highway. At one point stopping only 3 feet from a stranded vehicle as visibility was so poor.

Trooper Bullock contacted Steve Reed of MDOT who in turn coordinated with the Billings Maintenance Department “who brought up some truck plows and a (650 horse powered) rotary snow blower, the one that clears the (Beartooth) Pass,” he said. The snow blower can shift 5,000 tons of snow an hour. As the road was cleared more vehicles were discovered. Trooper Bullock estimates between 13-15 stranded cars in that area and once gathered they were escorted back to Joliet.

So extreme were the drifts that one almost closed off the entrance to Edgar and another blocked the intersection of Carbonado Road and Joliet-Fromberg Road just outside of Joliet.

Carbon County Sheriff Josh McQuillan estimated the Carbonado drift to be “10 feet high.” By the day’s end dispatch had taken 18 calls for slide offs and assists between 2 a.m. and 5 p.m. although McQuillan added that he “couldn’t even tell” how many cars were stuck in total.

The roads reopened around 12 noon.

Further problems beset the emergency services as Billings’ skiers started coming up to the mountain. The road from Joliet to Billings was fine confirmed McQuillan but they found themselves suddenly in a storm. Skiers were diverted via Fromberg, Bridger and Belfry.

 

Trooper Bullock said that those stranded were “fantastic” and “very patient and understanding.” “They had their windows down and we were talking but because of the howling winds you could barely hear and had to scream at the top of your lungs,” he said. The day’s events brought to light several concerns voiced by McQuillan and Kohley those being one of safety and preparedness for such a storm to checking the weather and road conditions from other sources other than calling dispatch. “Dispatch was overwhelmed,” said McQuillan. “Check the roads through the MDOT website, tune into local media stations,” said Kohley. “I encourage people to sign up to carbonalert.org. One thing is for certain in future and that is to separate nonemergency calls from emergency ones. The plan is to push those to another source, leaving dispatch to deal with the emergency calls.”

McQuillan referred people to the Sheriff’s facebook page for notifications and the most up-to-date road conditions.

The public can also call the Carbon County Commissioners’ number for updates at (406) 446-1595.

Safety concerns were paramount and no where more apparent than in one call to dispatch where a stranded driver had only half a tank of gas and 50 percent cell phone use. The incident reiterated the authorities concern that people must ensure before they travel in such conditions that they have a full tank of gas, a fully charged phone, an emergency kit and make sure the vehicle’s tail pipe is unblocked. By all account do not leave your car and walk off. They also asked if those trips were necessary?

“One of the things we found out last Friday was a lot of people could have stayed home, so use good judgment. There are first responders and plow drivers out there dealing with true emergencies. Don’t make unnecessary trips,” said McQuillan.

“At the end of the day it went very well,” said McQuillan. “There were no injuries and lots of entities involved from MDOT, the Highway Patrol, Sheriff, RLPD, the city and the county. For everything that was going on at the time it went very well.”

Trooper Bullock also praised the emergency services as well as the entities that helped see this through.

“There are a lot of good folks up here,” he said.