- Associated Press - Monday, January 5, 2015

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - Snow and freezing rain across much of Montana triggered highway accidents, school closures and avalanche warnings, while forecasters warned the treacherous conditions could linger through Tuesday.

The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for the western two-thirds of the state through Tuesday evening.

Forecasters expected continuing snow, high winds in some areas and isolated freezing rain.

One to 2 feet of snow had fallen by Monday morning in the Whitefish and Kalispell areas. But forecasters scaled back earlier predictions of more than 3 feet of powder in some areas.

“The message needs to be that conditions are changing rapidly across our forecast area,” said Paul Nutter with the National Weather Service in Great Falls. “We’re definitely concerned for travelers out there, people on the roadways when conditions are fine one moment, then visibility drops.”

The Montana Highway Patrol responded to more than two dozen vehicle crashes through midday Monday.

Among them was a jackknifed tractor-trailer along Interstate 90 that blocked westbound lanes between Greycliff and Big Timber for almost two hours. Trooper Zachary Grosfield said the accident occurred in an area where rainwater on the highway turned to black ice. No injuries were reported.

“People were slipping and sliding all over,” Grosfield said.

A second tractor-trailer jackknifed along state Highway 200 about 9 miles east of Bonner, blocking eastbound traffic.

Other accidents involving semitrailers occurred on state Highway 35 south of Bigfork and on Interstate 94 west of Terry, according to the Montana Department of Transportation.

The weather closed all schools in the Flathead County district, as well as schools in St. Ignatius and Potomac. East of Billings, schools were closed in St. Labre, Lame Deer, Lodge Grass and Northern Cheyenne. Some western Montana schools were starting class a few hours late.

By the time the storm system moves on late Tuesday, 4 to 8 inches were expected across the central plains, with 1 to 2 feet in the mountains, Nutter said. Southeast Montana and north-central Wyoming were forecast to receive up to 18 inches through Tuesday night.

Avalanche warnings were issued for the mountains of western and southwestern Montana.

Heavy winds with gusts up to 75 miles per hour were expected along the Interstate 90 corridor between Livingston and Big Timber and areas to the south.

Freezing rain overnight Sunday left a thick crust of ice on top of the snow in the Missoula area, said forecaster Darren Van Cleave. Temperatures were expected to warm up to around freezing before dropping again, Van Cleave said.

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