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Strong winds wreak havoc with fire, power outage and damaged boats

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MISSION VALLEY — A strong storm system tore through the Valley late last Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning, Aug. 15. The high winds caused a power outage, two boats to sink in Flathead Lake, several search and rescue calls and caused the West Garcon fire to double in size within a matter of hours. The fire put several homes at risk and caused late-night evacuations. 

Chris Gibbons, a science and operations officer with Missoula’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association office, said the system was characteristic of a winter storm front. While uncommon, these systems do tend to occur periodically from August to October. 

Gibbons said the cold front came down from the north-northeast and across the Continental Divide Tuesday afternoon. Around 10:30 p.m., the front reached Polson Bay and shifted winds to the north. Wind speeds recorded between the Narrows and Polson Bay reached a sustained 34 miles per hour with gusts up to 40 mph.

The front reached Yellow Bay at around the same time and developed a sustained wind of 29 mph with gusts as high as 43 mph. These conditions lasted for three to four hours. 

“What we had was a strong cold front that moved south from Canada and all the way across Montana,” Gibson said. “Often times these fronts start in the east and stay there, but it was such a strong system that it climbed the mountains and came right down at us.”

Unaware of the developing situation, several boats were on Flathead Lake when the storm began. 

Polson search and rescue volunteer Chris McGuinness was called in to help the various boats in need of assistance. He reported traveling over 4- to 5-foot waves in Polson Bay, and larger “rollers” in the Narrows. These waves were so large they washed over the seawall at the KwaTaqNuk’s main marina and caused cosmetic damage to several docked vessels. A resort rental boat broke free from the mooring lines and was battered against the rocks on shore until it sank. A crane had to lift it out the next morning. 

The KwaTaqNuk’s principle operating officer Sheila Matt said during conditions like these, it is much safer to ride out the storm on the lake. To prevent possible damage, “Shadow” captain Herman Anderson was told to take the Shadow to Wild Horse Island’s south shore. While pulling away from the dock, a mooring line became caught in one of the propellers. The Shadow was halfway to the island when it began experiencing trouble, and search and rescue was called to help guide the boat. 

By the time McGuinness arrived on scene, the Shadow was back on course and saw no further damage. It was repaired and in working condition the following day. 

McGuinness and the search and rescue crew then traveled north to assist several boats near Wild Horse Island. McGuinness said a sailboat and cabin cruiser were anchored some distance from shore, but both vessels reported all crew had been evacuated safely. 

“They sure weren’t having a good day,” he said. 

Two more sailboats containing seven Flathead Lake Lutheran Bible Camp high school youths and four camp instructors had been pushed onto the rocks at the island’s north shore. 

All occupants were able to make it ashore safely. The campers had intended to spend the night on the boats, but slept on the island instead and were picked up the following morning. “They were lucky they were so close to the island,” said the camp’s executive director Margie Fiedler.

Fiedler added the boats sustained minor cosmetic damage, but the campers were unharmed.

After assisting the Shadow and the campers, search and rescue returned to Polson Bay to help boats with broken mooring lines at various marinas. McGuinness said another boat sank between the bridge and the river, but search and rescue was not called to help. No serious injuries were reported. 

Meanwhile, in Pablo, strong winds knocked a tree into one of Mission Valley Power’s transformers. This caused a two to four-hour power outage in Pablo east of U.S. Highway 93. 

The West Garcon fire, fed by sustained winds of over 30 mph, doubled in size during the four-hour storm. The entirety of Green Mountain was set ablaze, threatening several homes on the east side and prompting late night evacuations. 

Fire teams worked quickly to protect the residences and no major structures were lost. 

“When a big cool-down is forecast, people need to be aware in the event of a strong north wind event,” Gibbons said. “If people are in a vulnerable area like the west shore, south shore, Rocky Point, Finley Point and Wild Horse Island, they might need to take extra precautions to try and protect their property.” 

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