BILLINGS, Mont. – Water levels began to drop on flooded rivers in Montana and Wyoming on Tuesday, and authorities scrambled to restore road access for hundreds of people left isolated by high waters.
Recent floodwaters have damaged numerous homes and business in both states, and some Montana residents living close to the Musselshell River remained evacuated.
Meanwhile, forecasters warned that rising temperatures later this week could again increase the runoff from melting snow in some areas.
Taking advantage of the lull, crews hurried to shore up sandbag flood defences around Manderson, Wyo., and Roundup, Mont.
Attention also turned to Montana’s high country after a skier was killed in an avalanche northeast of Philipsburg. Authorities said more slides were possible due to heavy, wet snow that blanketed much of the state Monday and early Tuesday.
In Richland County, two men were rescued from an ice jam after they drove up to the Yellowstone River’s edge and the water began rising too quickly for them to escape, according to Tanya Fransen with the National Weather Service in Glasgow.
When local authorities decided a water rescue would be too dangerous, a helicopter from the 91st Missile Wing was called in to hoist the men to safety, said Lt. Jose Davis with North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base.
Warm weather over the past week unleashed large amounts of water from record snowfalls in the area, pushing many streams and rivers over their banks.
In Wyoming, six homes and two businesses suffered major damage and 11 homes had minor damage in Washakie and Big Horn counties since flooding began last week, said Kelly Ruiz, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security.
In Roundup, more than three dozen homes, businesses and ranches were damaged. Outside the town, as many as 400 people were cut off in rural areas after concerns over the surging Musselshell River prompted the closure of a key bridge.
Crews were working to restore the route Tuesday but it was unclear when it would re-open, local officials said.
There was no word on when the evacuated residents near the Musselshell could return home. A storm that began Monday night and continued early Tuesday dumped the equivalent of an inch of rain in the Roundup area.
With cooler temperatures over the past two days, the river had fallen almost 3 feet from its Monday peak.
National Weather Service forecaster Chauncy Schultz said Montana residents should remain wary. Temperatures were forecast to reach the 50s later this week, which could increase the runoff from melting snow.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock declared a flood emergency after forecasters put 30 of the state’s 56 counties under some type of high water warning. State officials said they had received no calls for assistance from local jurisdictions.
Officials said they were keeping a close watch on ice-jams along the Musselshell west of Roundup, and the Yellowstone and Tongue Rivers upstream of Miles City.
In western Montana’s avalanche fatality, 27-year-old Peter Maxwell of Missoula was backcountry skiing when the slide broke loose Monday afternoon in the Altoona Lakes area.
Granite County Sheriff Scott Dunkerson said efforts to resuscitate Maxwell failed and he died at the scene after being dug out by his six companions. Dunkerson warned other skiers not to go into the area given what he described as extreme avalanche dangers
He was the fourth person to die in western Montana avalanches since Jan. 1. Twenty-two people have died in avalanches nationwide since Dec. 26, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
In the mountains of the western and central parts of the state, a high avalanche danger warning was issued by the Gallatin National Forest for the Bridger, Gallatin and Madison mountain ranges, the Lionhead area outside West Yellowstone, and the mountains around Cooke City.
Areas of Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming also had snow conditions that created considerable avalanche danger, authorities said.
In Wyoming, National Guard members bolstered sandbag defences in Manderson after a school in the town was threatened by the flooding Big Horn River on Monday.
Up to 3 inches of snow was forecast for the area overnight Tuesday. Minor flooding also was possible in the Star Valley and Jackson Hole, authorities said.
Associated Press writer Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.