“Mother Nature is mad at somebody.”
Heart Butte School District Superintendent Lee Folley doesn’t care who earned winter’s ire. He just wants it to stop. He hasn’t seen his students for two weeks.
“The roads opened up a little last week, I don’t even remember which day,” Folley said on Monday. “But the next day, we had 65-mph gusts and a wind event the whole day and that closed it back up again. I followed the school bus to Birch Creek when they opened it up last night. The snow drifts on each side of the lane were taller than the bus.”
Heart Butte rests on the foothills of the Rocky Mountain Front, 36 miles south of Browning and the same distance west of Valier. For the past four days, Highway 89 has been closed between Fairfield and Browning, so no truck traffic has made it to Heart Butte. Snowmobiles have had difficulty getting there, too.
Its immediate needs are firewood, food, toiletries and diapers.
“We’re also soon going to be running out of propane, because the delivery trucks can’t get out here,” Folley said. “And last night, I saw the town water pump is broken, so that’s exacerbated things. It’s just one thing after another.”
The Blackfeet Tribal Business Council set up an incident command center on Feb. 19 to spread help to anyone who needs it among the 15,000 residents of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. For the past week, its Facebook page has been a non-stop stream of road blockage reports, weather alerts and assistance numbers.
A snow gauge in East Glacier may break accumulation records for both the month of February and the 2017-18 winter, according to National Weather Service lead meteorologist Jim Brusda in Great Falls. The community on the edge of Glacier National Park has logged more than 80 inches since Feb. 1, and 240 since winter started.
But that’s not the real problem.
“Normally we’d get a chinook wind, where the temperature climbs into the 30s or mid-40s,” Brusda said. “That would make the snow harden and compact, so it’s pretty hard to move around. But this February, they had nearly 5 feet of snow and the warmest days were the 1st and 2nd. Since then, it’s just been in the teens and 20s, which hasn’t been warm enough to put a crust on the snow.”
Winds last Thursday and Friday left drifts everywhere. Crews got some of them plowed on Saturday, but the wind returned on Sunday, along with 7 inches of fresh snow.
“That re-closed some of the roads they had plowed out,” Brusda said. “They’re having to use front-end loaders to remove some drifts. That’s a long and tedious process.”
The forecast calls for more winds Monday night into Tuesday, followed by a lull on Wednesday and Thursday.
“We might get two days of rest, but the latest models show accumulating snow and wind as early as Friday, lasting through the day Saturday,” Brusda said. “We don’t see a significant warm-up in this area for the next six to 10 days, sometime in the beginning of March. We’re not very optimistic.”
The weather effect seems centered over the Blackfeet Reservation. Travel 25 miles east of the Rocky Mountain Front, and warmer conditions have reduced the drifting problem. Shelby and Conrad haven’t had strong winds. Babb, St. Mary and about a dozen other small reservation communities have seen anything but.
Blackfeet Food Pantry Director Roy Crawford said the storm has actually kicked the service into high gear. He’s been working with several organizations from around the state on bringing in food and other provisions like baby diapers and formula.
“People are getting food, sparingly, I would say, just because of the roads,” Crawford said. “With those roads closed, nothing is moving. I have to make sure the roads get open and everything is operational, then I can arrive with the quantities of food that I have coming in.”
The Blackfeet Food Pantry helps between 300-400 families a month on average. Crawford hasn’t had a chance to compile current deliveries, but those numbers will go up.
“I’m very appreciative of the people willing to donate and help out in a time of need,” Crawford said. “I’m geared to serve 300 families a month but not the entire reservation.”
Much of that assistance is coming from west of the Continental Divide. Columbia Falls United Methodist Pastor Dawn Skerritt took a church-sponsored disaster response training in Louisiana last November. She’s now coordinating a multi-county assistance effort.
“Never in my wildest imagination had I thought I’d need these skills so quickly,” Skerritt said. “It’s a pretty desperate situation. The Tribe has been fielding emergency calls from communities all across the reservation. Any able body in Browning is doing stuff to help right now. They’re plowing people out, digging people out. People are stepping up, helping out neighbors.”
Craig Cliff is one of the people tasked to clear the roads. He works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs out of Billings, plowing roads on the Blackfeet Reservation.
“It almost makes you dizzy looking at it,” Cliff said of the blowing drifts. “Someone was stuck in Heart Butte so I had to turn around and that took an hour and a half and when I went back the snow was already blowing in again where we cut. It’s drifting right back in.”
Cliff went on to say that animals are struggling in the harsh conditions as well. Calving season has started, and many ranchers must scramble to get their pregnant cows in safe quarters or lose them to the cold.
Most homes in need depend on propane and wood for heat. Propane deliveries have been intermittent or impossible for the past two weeks, and can only be done by professional trucks. So church members sought out sources of firewood.
Skerritt said there was plenty of wood in the Columbia Falls area, but Highway 2 was blocked much of the weekend. Instead, donors found a supply in Havre, which has better road conditions. The first semi load arrived on Saturday.
But the wood is coming as whole logs. So a volunteer contingent from Kalispell armed with chainsaws made the trek as well.
Skerritt said the weather seems to find new obstacles when her volunteers try alternatives. Last week, they put a donation of several large cargo sleds onto the Amtrak eastbound passenger train in Whitefish. But a storm stalled another train, forcing the Amtrak to reroute around Browning.
“I had a nightmare that the sleds would end up in Chicago,” Skerritt said. Fortunately, an alert conductor arranged for the sleds to detrain in Shelby, where Pastor Calvin Hill was headed to pick up a donated log splitter for the firewood party.
“He was able to pick up everything at once,” Skerritt said. “We trust that God is going to make this happen.”