Strength in numbers
A search and rescue in the Willow Creek Drainage after a microburst
The big Montana sky had darkened, and the wind howled. A loud rumble bellowed through a narrow mountaintop-valley, too intense to be thunder.
Megan Franecki and Donnie Williams stood under a large, dead tree with Williams’ dogs, Riddick and Mala to avoid the jawbreaker-sized hail falling from the sky. Franecki clung to Williams, her eyes shut tight in fear.
“What is that?”
“Those are the trees,” Williams said.
A column of wind, rain and hail plummeted from a thundercloud toward the forested Willow Creek drainage. Its power exploded on the ground and expanded outward, flattening the trees as its energy barreled through the canyon.
On the north side of the canyon, the wind whipped at the old tree. Franecki and Williams pivoted to the other side of its thick trunk as it leaned the other way, in case the wind defeated its roots, like it had done to the large tree next to them.
“Trees came out of the ground like nothing,” Franecki said.
After about three minutes, the wind calmed. The hail returned smaller, mixing with the rain and then, it all stopped. Sunlight began to seep through the damp haze. Soil clumped to roots dangling above the ground they were just ripped from. Fallen trees blocked the path that a few minutes ago, the couple drove on with an all-terrain vehicle.
A microburst had stranded them in its wreckage.
A strip of severe thunderstorms developed near the Continental Divide around noon Aug. 11. They moved southwest to northeast across Beaverhead and Madison counties. Great Falls National Weather Service issued several severe thunderstorm warnings throughout the afternoon in three counties.
The Madison Valley had sporadic moments of heavy rain but in the neighboring Ruby Valley, golf-ball-sized hail caused a lot of property damage. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a Missoula weather radar showed that the thunderstorm peaked in strength with a well-defined, mid-level rotational signature over Sheridan around 2:30 p.m. As the storm moved northeast, it began weakening.
In the Tobacco Root Mountains, between Sheridan and Pony, the weakening storm produced a microburst.
As the updraft of the thunderstorm pushed warm air farther upward into colder air, larger precipitation particles formed. A strong updraft, such as this storm, can store large amounts of rain and hail in the upper portions of the cloud.
When the updraft couldn’t support the weight of the particles it has stored, they began to fall out of the cloud. A downdraft of sinking cold air formed, weakening the updraft to the point that it couldn’t hold its large core full of rain and hail. This caused the base of the cloud to collapse. A localized column of sinking air plunged to the ground, blasting its energy outward in every direction as it landed.
Microbursts can produce winds above 100 mph, equivalent to a moderate tornado. They can last from seconds to five minutes. NOAA estimated that winds channeled through the small Willow Creek drainage between 90 to 100 mph on Aug. 11.
“Seeing the trees flattened in a spiral was the most bazaar and creepiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Franecki said.
Williams and Franecki left Bozeman for Granite Lake on a Sunday morning, expecting a 20 to 30 percent chance of rain. As they traveled from the parking lot on U.S. Forest Service Road 9605 toward the lake, a dark, puffy cloud crept over the mountain.
Bill and Kathy Bahny, from Helena, stopped to talk with the couple on their way back from the shores of Granite Lake. Their 5-year-old Boston terrier, Emma, sat in their side by side vehicle with them. They talked about how beautiful the lake was and continued down the trail toward their car to try and beat the storm that loomed near. Franecki and Williams found an open area with the large dead tree to wait out the storm over lunch.
As it began to hail, Franecki and Williams moved under the old tree for shelter. Reddrick was eager to play with hail as it fell from the sky. But then the hail stopped, and the wind began.
A tree fell in front of the Bahny’s side by side, hitting the hood. They didn’t move until the wind stopped roaring. They couldn’t move their vehicle after the wind stopped because large fallen trees trapped it. Bill stayed with the Emma in the side by side while Kathy took the pistol up the trail to find Franecki and Williams.
The trail was clear for Franecki and Williams to get to the lake.
“We came all this way, we might as well go to the lake,” Williams said.
Blue sky pierced through partly cloudy conditions. They hadn’t realized the extent of the damage until they met up with Kathy on the trail.
They maneuvered around obstacles of debris to get to Bill. A gun shot rang through the canyon. They froze before Bill returned a shot in the air. Another shot was returned. Williams started yelling and someone yelled back, but they couldn’t understand them.
Sound bounced in the narrow valley, off the canyon walls. They thought the yelling was coming from the south side of the canyon, but it seemed impossible to be sure. They decided that they needed to get out, not farther into the wreckage.
The four of them, plus their three dogs, hiked toward the ridge. Williams estimated that they hiked over four hours trying to get to the highline, but the passing hours of the day wasn’t a major concern. The passage of daylight was. He scouted ahead of the group looking for the safest route. Williams considered the ability of everyone, especially Bill, who is 73 years old.
“We found dead ends everywhere,” Williams said.
They backtracked and climbed over fallen trees until they were high enough for cell service. Franecki called 911 around 6:45 p.m. The group was optimistic throughout the day but as it grew darker they were exhausted, soaked and getting colder.
“I truly believe in strength in numbers,” Franecki said. “But as it got darker and started raining again, it kicked in, we’re not getting out of here by ourselves.”
It was dark when Steve Primm got to the trail head with Search and Rescue. The U.S. Forest Service had a six-member crew with ATVs and chain saws.
“We were running into walls of trees over 10 feet high,” Primm said.
It was nearly impossible to tell which trees had fallen and which were pinned. There was tension in the walls of timber over the trail, making for dangerous conditions for the saw crew. Jeff Barns, an engine captain with the Beaverhead-Deerlodge U.S. Forest Service in Ennis, lead the crew.
“We don’t usually do it at night because of the added hazards,” Barns said.
Franecki and Bill violently shook in the cold dark. It would take hours for the saw crew to cut their way to them. A new storm was coming in with hail and wind. From Bill’s Garmin Inreach GPS location, Search and Rescue could tell that the four hikers were within 400 yards of them.
Search and Rescue members Primm, Tim Gurgonski and Gary Hochadel packed medical supplies and warm, dry jackets and blankets and hiked ahead. It took them over 30 minutes to trek the 400 yards. Primm was the first one to see Williams, who lead him a few hundred feet to a clearing in the trail where the others huddled together.
“I’ve never been more thankful to snuggle up to a stranger,” Franecki said.
Then a gunshot echoed through the canyon again. It was coming from below, where the trees had flattened over a small creek. Primm returned a shot, but nothing else was heard. The search and rescue team started a fire and gave the hikers dry clothes around 11 p.m.
It was another two hours before they met up with the saw crew. Montana National Guard brought two helicopters and combed the area with search lights and thermal cameras, but they didn’t find anyone. The Madison County Sheriff’s Office checked for missing persons reports and abandoned vehicles, coming up with none.
“I still believe someone else is out there,” Williams said.
Bill Bahny wrote a personal narrative about the experience and it can be read here: https:// www.montana-ranches.com/granite-lake-experience/