An early-season storm dumped more than a foot of snow on northwestern Minnesota on Thursday, closing schools, limiting travel, canceling a homecoming parade and snuffing out the danger from wildfires that had destroyed 11 houses in Karlstad two days earlier.
"The snow is a problem of its own, but it's been a saving grace in Karlstad," said Kittson County Sheriff Kenny Hultgren.
It was a dark and quiet grace, however, as the storm knocked out power, leaving Karlstad residents facing the prospect of no electricity at least overnight. The town's nursing home, evacuated on Tuesday as fire approached, was still closed as crews cleaning up smoke damage were limited to a backup generator. It's not expected to be reopened until Monday.
By the time the snow tapered off late Thursday, residents near Badger, southwest of Roseau, were already confronted with more than a foot. At Greenbush, 8 inches of snow forced the closing of the field office of the Interagency Fire Center that had been monitoring wildfires across northwest Minnesota.
Winds that had gusted to 40 miles per hour were also dialing back as night fell and roads in the region were improving, said National Weather Service meteorologist Dave Kellenbenz. The 3 1/2 inches of snow that fell at Grand Forks during the day was gone by evening, he said.
Though some of the snowfalls were prodigious, October snow is not unusual in northwestern Minnesota.
The earliest 1-inch snowfall in the Twin Cities fell on Sept. 26, 1942. (The flurries that many Twin Cities residents reported seeing Thursday afternoon were actually goldenrod seeds, said naturalist Kirk Mona.)
The rain and subsequent snowmelt in the northwest acted as a dramatic, if possibly temporary, fire retardant across the region after months of drought. The moisture is likely to soak quickly into soils where rainfall has run 8 or more inches below normal since April 1. Assistant state climatologist Pete Boulay noted that Thursday's snow and rain would likely amount to an entire normal October's worth or precipitation for many areas. But a return of dry weather and high winds could make the benefits short-lived, and bring back high fire dangers.
"What it'll do, probably, is stop the slide from getting worse," Boulay said. "But we'll take moisture in any form."
The storm presented some unusual problems for the Grand Forks office of the National Weather Service. Power interruptions meant that many automated reporting devices across the region couldn't report precipitation through the day, forcing staffers to get on the telephone and call observers, meteorologist Jim Kaiser said. Also, the snow formed so low in the atmosphere that radar beams were shooting over it and failing to detect it. A radar beam fired 100 miles from Grand Forks to Roseau, for example, would be scanning at 12,000 feet above the ground, while snow was forming at 4,000 feet on Thursday.
"The Earth is curved, so that's the problem," Kaiser said.
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646