A blizzard packing heavy snow and high winds raged across much of western and southern Minnesota late Saturday, making roads impassable in much of the region, and the dangerous weather is likely to continue well into Sunday evening.

Falling snow followed by winds gusting as high as 50 miles an hour were creating whiteout conditions across southern Minnesota, from Worthington, Marshall, Willmar and Morris in the west, to Mankato and Albert Lea in the central part of the state, to Red Wing, Wabasha and Rochester in the east.

Late Saturday, Gov. Tim Walz declared a state of emergency in Freeborn and Steele counties, authorizing National Guard personnel to rescue stranded travelers. Armories will be open in Albert Lea and Owatonna to help those caught in the heavy snow and strong wind.

A few hours earlier, the National Weather Service had extended the blizzard warning northward, adding Stevens, Pope, Kandiyohi, Swift and Meeker counties to a broad zone that also included south metro counties Carver, Scott and Dakotas. It also upgraded the severity of forecasts for Hennepin, Ramsey and Washington counties, placing them under a winter storm warning.

Several counties in western Wisconsin were also under blizzard or winter storm warnings, with up to a foot of snow expected in Eau Claire and other communities.

“Please stay off the roads tonight,” the National Weather Service in Chanhassen warned. By 10:30 p.m., whiteout conditions had made roads nearly impassable in south-central Minnesota. A long stretch of Interstate 90 was closed and many smaller highways and county roads were closed. In the Rochester area and around Red Wing, Kenyon, Kasson, Owatonna, New Ulm, St. James and Windom, visibility was near zero.

By the time it’s all over, snow totals will vary widely — from just an inch or two in western Minnesota, 4 inches in the Twin Cities, 9 inches in Red Wing and 11 or 12 inches in Albert Lea, Rochester and Eau Claire.

But snow totals aren’t the best gauge of weather severity, the Weather Service warned — it’s the high winds blowing whatever snow is at hand around that will create the greatest danger — low or zero visibility.

The state Department of Transportation warned that driving across much of the state will remain dangerous well into Sunday night and urged those who must drive to refer often to its frequently updated online road reports.

February, month of snow

Nature appears to be trying to cram an entire Minnesota winter into the second half of the season, with parts of the state measuring record-breaking snowfall.

The Twin Cities area has already blown way past its February snowfall record, with 31.7 inches so far, about 5 inches above the previous record set in 1962. The latest storm is poised to set the February bar even higher.

Even before Saturday’s heavy snow began, Eau Claire was already within an inch and a half of breaking its record for the most snow in any one month — 35.3 inches in January 1929. In the Twin Cities, February has been the 10th snowiest month ever (the record is 46.9 inches, set in November 1991). It’s especially odd considering February is, on average, the fourth snowiest month of the year, behind January, December and March.

Across southern and central Minnesota, Sunday will be dominated by patchy blowing snow, with blustery northwest winds of 15 to 25 mph, occasionally gusting to 40 mph, creating a below-zero windchill and continuing to hamper visibility, the Weather Service said.

More snow alsois  possible Tuesday and Thursday, it said.

Staff writers Vince Tuss and Pamela Miller contributed to this report.