COLUMBIA FALLS — The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office is encouraging a “precautionary evacuation” for residents of low-lying areas along the Flathead River as the river slowly inches into flood stage this week. 

The warning to residents in the northwest part of the state comes just 24 hours after similar conditions — heavy rain and melting snow — resulted in devastation across southern Montana, including the now-closed Yellowstone National Park. While the Flathead River isn’t expected to peak until early next week, Flathead County Sheriff Brian Heino said he is warning residents early because if low-lying areas start to flood, “resources could be stretched thin very quickly” in the 5,000-square-mile county. 

According to the National Weather Service, the Flathead River was at 14.7 feet on Tuesday afternoon, more than two feet above “minor” flood stage. “Moderate” flood stage is 18 feet and above. The most devastating flood in the modern history of the Flathead Valley came in 1964 when the river hit 25.58 feet in Columbia Falls. That flood devastated the Middle Fork canyon near Glacier National Park and caused significant damage around Kalispell, particularly in Evergreen. 

Travis Booth, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula, said parts of the Flathead Valley have already gotten two inches of rain in the last 24 hours and up to twice that amount of moisture in the mountains, where it was snowing on Tuesday. Booth said that snow could cause problems this coming weekend and early next week when temperatures start to rise. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Flathead River is expected to hit 16.7 feet next week. And that might be just the beginning of trouble for local residents, Booth said, adding that the river could stay high for some time after that. 

In the meantime, a flood advisory has been issued for most of Flathead and Lincoln counties until 10 a.m. Wednesday as smaller streams and creeks rise and some local streets flood. 

The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office encouraged people to keep an eye on it’s Facebook page for current information

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.