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Staying safe during Montana winters


Snow buildup off Interstate 90

Winter is a big deal in Montana.

Every year, Montana Red Cross responds to several winter weather emergencies, usually involving road closures, stranded passengers and the need for emergency shelter. This is why I plan to revisit the topic of winter safety several times this season, just to make sure we are all prepared for whatever the season throws our way.

Know the difference

When a winter storm is in the forecast, it is important to know what the following definitions mean:

  • Winter storm outlook: Winter storm conditions are possible in the next 2 to 5 days.
  • Winter weather advisory: Winter weather conditions are expected to cause significant inconveniences and may be hazardous. When caution is used, these situations should not be life threatening.
  • Winter storm watch: Winter storm conditions are possible within the next 36 to 48 hours. People in a watch area should review their winter storm plans and stay informed about weather conditions.
  • Winter storm warning: Life-threatening, severe winter conditions have begun or will begin within 24 hours. People in a warning area should take precautions immediately.


Winter driving safety tips

I recommend that you stay off the road during a winter storm, if at all possible. If you have to drive, follow these tips on how to drive safely or what to do if you become stuck in your vehicle:

  • Make sure your vehicle is ready for winter with a window scraper, antifreeze, kitty litter or sand to provide traction in case you get stuck, extra clothes and a disaster supplies kit in your trunk. Pack high-protein snacks, water, first aid kit, flashlight, small battery-operated radio, an emergency contact card with names and phone numbers, extra prescription medications, blankets and important documents or information you may need.
  • Fill the vehicle’s gas tank and clean the lights and windows to help you see.
  • Find out what disasters may occur where you are traveling and pay attention to the weather forecast. Before you leave, let someone know where you are going, the route you plan to take, and when you expect to get there. If your car gets stuck, help can be sent along your predetermined route.
  • Make sure everyone has their seat belts on and give your full attention to the road. Avoid distractions such as cellphones.
  • Don’t follow other vehicles too closely. Sudden stops are difficult on snowy roadways.
  • Don’t use cruise control when driving in winter weather.
  • Don’t pass snow plows.
  • Use extra caution around ramps, bridges and overpasses, as these will accumulate ice before roadways.
  • If you are stranded, don’t run your engine and heater constantly to help avoid running out of gas. Don’t use things like lights or the radio without the engine running so the battery doesn’t give out. Also, move your vehicle off the roadway if you can. Stay with your vehicle – don’t abandon it. If you have to get out of your vehicle, use the side away from traffic.

Watch for more winter safety tips in the months to come.


Anna Fernández-Gevaert is the communications director for the American Red Cross of Montana. She can be reached at