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Avalanche warnings, ice snarl Montana roads, rails

Associated Press

HELENA (AP) — Montana residents kept struggling Friday with the changing weather and poor road conditions while avalanche warnings remained in effect for backcountry areas in the western part of the state, with extreme danger in the mountains around Cooke City.

Icy roads in the Helena area prevented school buses from running Friday morning, but classes were still held. The afternoon bus routes were cancelled as well.

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton issued an emergency travel only order for a few hours because of slick roads that had caused numerous crashes in the Helena area. The order was lifted shortly after 10 a.m.

Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency Friday for the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Glacier County and Lincoln County in northwestern Montana, which saw up to 4 feet of snow from a winter storm earlier this week. The governor authorized the National Guard and the use of state money to assist with health and safety needs in those areas.

The state Department of Transportation indicated highways were icy in northwestern Montana, including the Columbia Falls, Eureka, Libby and Troy areas and all of Montana Highway 83 from Bigfork to the junction with Montana 200.

The BNSF Railway line and U.S. Highway 2 remained closed Friday because of avalanche activity in the Marias Pass area on the southern edge of Glacier National Park. One slide covered the tracks with 6 to 8 feet of debris. Amtrak trains were stopped in Whitefish and Shelby with a total of about 140 passengers.

BNSF Railway spokesman Ross Lane said crews were working Friday to remove snow from the tracks, and they hoped to resume traffic on the rail line early Friday evening.

The Amtrak Empire Builder being held at Whitefish was going to return to Seattle and Portland, Oregon, via Spokane on Friday night. The train’s estimated 85 eastbound passengers were being offered return travel west or a night of housing at Amtrak’s expense, spokesman Marc Magliari said.

The Empire Builder being held in Shelby was going to return east on Friday evening. The 54 westbound passengers will be offered return travel east or a night of housing at the rail company’s expense, Magliari said.

The U.S. Forest Service issued avalanche warnings for the Whitefish, Swan and Flathead mountain ranges, southern Glacier National Park, the mountains of west-central Montana and the area north of Yellowstone National Park. The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center said there was extreme danger of avalanche in the mountains around Cooke City after the area received 5 to 7 feet of snow over the past week.

“The pure weight of this load will push any weakness in the snowpack past its breaking point,” Gallatin avalanche center officials said. Continued snow and rain will make natural and human-triggered avalanches certain, the warning said.

Classes were not held Friday in St. Regis, Troy and Browning.
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