HELENA (AP) - Much of Montana got hit with a nasty winter storm Wednesday that packed strong winds, rain and even heavy snow, just one day after most of the state was enjoying unseasonably warm temperatures.
The storm forced the closure of a portion of Interstate 15 between Helena and Great Falls, along with at least two other highways, and was being blamed for a close call for one highway patrol officer.
Officer Wade Fisher escaped serious injury when he was pinned between a large tractor-trailer and his cruiser at the site of a collision on I-15 north of Helena.
Highway Patrol Capt. Paul Grimstad said Fisher was trapped when a gust of wind pushed the trailer into the side of his patrol car, where the officer was standing at the time. A wrecker, at the scene to tow the disabled truck, pulled the trailer away to free Fisher, Grimstad said.
''He didn't even see the trailer coming when all of sudden he was pinched,'' Grimstad said.
Fisher was taken by ambulance to the Helena hospital, where tests showed no broken bones or serious injuries, Grimstad added.
The patrol Wednesday morning closed a 45-mile section of I-15 from the Lincoln Road exit, north of Helena, to just south of Cascade because winds and blowing snow had reduced visibility to near zero.
The patrol also closed Montana 434, which runs from Wolf Creek to U.S. 200 and closed a stretch of U.S. 287 between U.S. 200 and I-15.
The National Weather Service issued winter storm warnings for a large portion of western and northwestern Montana and winter weather advisories for much of the rest of the state for Wednesday.
As much as 8 inches of snow was expected in the mountains, the Weather Service said.
The storm was part of the same system that knocked out power to thousands of customers in northwestern Washington.
Power also was affected in some areas of Montana.
Thousands of customers along the Hi-Line were without power at times during the day, said NorthWestern Energy spokeswoman Claudia Rapkoch.
She said some areas near Great Falls remained without power during the evening, ''and we have lots of problems along the Hi-Line,'' she said.
At least 14 distribution poles were toppled, and numerous transmission facilities also were knocked out, she said.
In all, NorthWestern said there were power outages reported in Helena, Wolf Creek, Bowman's Corner, Augusta, Conrad, Dutton, Brady, Vaughn, Sun Prairie, Portage and the Pondera oilfields.
Roy Nollkamper, manager of member services for Glacier Electric Cooperative, said the Babb and Heart Butte area were without power starting about 3 a.m. Wednesday. Crews scrambled to bring back the lights, but some areas were without power for as long as 12 hours, he said.
Robert Anderson, operations manager with Fairfield-based Sun River Electric Cooperative, said the Dupuyer and Pendroy areas were hardest hit.