LINCOLN — Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton swiped through photos on his cellphone while having lunch Thursday near the epicenter of the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that shook Western Montana awake early that morning, pausing on one of a near-miss that could have been deadly.
An elk antler rack hung over a couple's bed had fallen off the wall, bounced off the bed and landed on the floor.
“They were counting their blessings," Dutton said. "Somebody probably would have been impaled if they had been in bed."
There were no reports of major damage or injuries after the strong quake hit at 12:30 a.m. The epicenter was six miles south of Lincoln and tremors were felt in neighboring states. The shallow quake originated about three miles underground, according to a preliminary report from the U.S. Geological Survey.
The USGS recorded at least nine more tremors in the same area within an hour of the initial quake, ranging in magnitude from 4.9 to 3.1.
There was a power outage in Lincoln right after the quake and some homes and businesses reported trouble with internet service. Law enforcement around the region was flooded with calls about the quake, but no significant injuries were reported.
Part of a brick parapet from an apartment building in Butte fell to the ground, breaking a car's window, but injuring no one.
The Montana Department of Transportation sent maintenance and engineering crews to inspect roads and bridges in the Lincoln, Helena and Missoula areas, public information officer Lori Ryan said Thursday. The crews found no damage and none was reported to the department, Ryan said.
NorthWestern Energy said late Thursday morning that they had no reports of damage to their electric and natural gas network.
Spokesman Butch Larcombe said in the Lincoln area about 1,350 homes lost power right when the earthquake hit. Crews went out to a substation and closed a breaker to restore power after about 45 minutes. The substation was not damaged.
NorthWestern did some investigation of their natural gas system in the Helena area and found no damage. A few people called the utility to report the smell of natural gas, but crews didn’t find any leaks.
The utility, as well as local law enforcement, encouraged people to check their property for damage.
Mike Stickney, seismologist at the Earthquake Studies Office, Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology on the Montana Tech campus in Butte, said the quake was probably the strongest in Montana since October 1964.
The location, he said, is not surprising. “It’s right along the axis of the intermountain seismic belt.”
He said the quake occurred on a strike/slip fault, a vertical fault where one side moves horizontally against the other, similar to the kind of movement experienced along the San Andreas Fault in California.
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He said he does not believe the quake is seismically tied to the recent “swarm” of smaller earthquakes in the Yellowstone National Park area. “I don’t see any direct relationship between these two sequences,” he said.
The USGS reports the Lincoln quake was one of 20 within the last week and 236 within the last month.
Social media also shook with news of the quake, with Montanans sharing photos of stores where items fell off shelves, stories of being shaken awake and pets that were either on full alert or snoozed through the whole thing.
Dutton who was in the western side of his county surveying for damage, said he heard from the state Department of Emergency Services that this kind of seismic activity was likely to continue another two months.
“I’d buy some Velcro tape and start latching cabinet doors,” he said. "We don't tend to pay attention around here to these things that might fall down and hurt you. We don't pay attention to things that might impale you in places where you're sleeping or dining. We got to remember it's going to happen again."
Zach Muse, Lincoln's volunteer fire chief, said he had three volunteers out when the quake was first reported and 10 making the rounds later in the day. Muse said visible emergency responders helped bring a sense of calm.
His biggest concern was fuel. Gas station pumps where running slow, which worried people.
“Fuel is the biggest hing. If the tanks are comprised, we’re in trouble.”
Dutton said his 911 call enter received 257 calls, most of which were of the "Did you know you had an earthquake" nature.
A better system is needed, he said, because it was difficult to connect outbound calls to responders. On the other hand, he said social media and the reverse-911 system worked well.
Petr Yakovlev, a geologist at the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology in Butte, was up on Stemple Pass searching for the epicenter, which could be a small crack in the earth or another sign of disturbance. He said the quake was 19 kilometers, or about 12 miles, below the surface on one of two faults in the area. (Estimates of the quake's depth varied; the U.S. Geological Survey estimated the depth at 11.1 kilometers).
The bureau just finished mapping the area geologically in the last two years. On the map there's a big hole between Helena and the Flathead where nothing is supposed to happen.
"I guess it did," Yakovlev said. Thursday's quake was the first he'd experienced.
This story contains reporting from Lee state reporters Holly Michels in Helena and Jayme Fraser in Missoula, Jesse Chaney at the Independent Record, David McCumber at the Montana Standard, David Erickson and Ashley Nerbovig at the Missoulian and Alyssa Small at the Billings Gazette.