"There's an avalanche up the Rattlesnake!"

Like so many points in my nearly 5-decades of chasing news, the initial information just didn't make sense.

But KPAX-TV's tremendous Executive Producer Melissa Rafferty was adamant. The fire trucks I'd seen screaming down East Broadway were headed to the Rattlesnake for an "urban avalanche."

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the disaster, a catastrophe that forever changed how we view the steep "walls" of our mountain valley.

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The product of repeated storms that month

February 2014 saw epic snowfall across Western Montana. I spent weeks covering all kinds of storm-related stories, from flash flooding to dangerous driving in the passes, avalanches in the Bitterroot, and storms that would dump more than 40 inches of snow on Missoula, nearly breaking a 1938 record.

But the real problems began as the month drew to a close, with a massive blizzard and biting arctic winds pounding Western Montana.

READ MORE: Avalanche experts remember Missoula's Urban Avalanche

Non-stop snow

The day before disaster struck, we struggled with dangerous driving conditions, and schools and businesses were forced to close. But it wasn't enough to stop more than a thousand fans from seeing Merle Haggard's final performance at the Dennison Theater.

The next day, I was back out in the snow. I was still half-frozen from shooting video in the howling winds in Bonner, with wind chills well below -20 when I saw the fire trucks and Missoula Police cars speeding up the Rattlesnake.

A snowboarder in the wrong place at the wrong time

Investigators with the West Central Montana Avalanche Center would later find that a snowboarder crossing the slopes of Mount Jumbo had triggered the slide. He managed to "self-arrest", but tons of snow were loosed on the 35-degree slope, burying two children who were playing in their backyard and slamming into a two-story home.

66-year-old Fred Allendorf and his wife Michel Colville were inside when the slide hit and were buried in snow and debris.

10-year old Coral Scoles-Coburn was buried to her armpits but managed to free herself. 8-year old Phoenix was buried 3-feet down next to the house.

The amazing rescue

Firefighters, police officers, MHP troopers, and others rushed to the scene, along with neighbors armed with avalanche rescue gear and even just everyday snow shovels. The rescue was complicated by live power lines, broken gas lines, and brutal conditions, with high winds, driving snow, and the risk of another slide.

For the KPAX team, it was a challenging but memorable day, as we went "live" from the scene, telling the story of the tragedy, but also the communities' rescue efforts.

Neighbors rush to help with the rescue; MTN News
Neighbors rush to help with the rescue; MTN News

Phoenix wasn't responsive when he was taken out and rushed to the hospital 55 minutes later where he recovered. Fred wasn't located until an hour after that but survived. However, Michel was breathing and not responsive when she was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. She would pass on March 3rd.

The snowboarder had been with three friends on sleds, who had actually started down the mountain just prior to the boarder. They all escaped injury and rushed to the scene to help with the rescue.

Lessons learned

Today, the incident forms the basis of improvements to emergency responders' protocols and training. And the City of Missoula is much more stringent in closing Mount Jumbo with forecasters issuing "urban avalanche warnings" in several conditions.

Montana's Top 10 Record-Setting Wild Weather Events

Montana is named Big Sky Country for several reasons, not only grandiose Sunsets but impressive weather events as well! Ask any Montana resident who has scoffed at the idea of tossing a blanket or snow shovel in the trunk of the car ” just in case”. Here is a list of Montana's Top 10 Record-Setting Wild Weather Events

Gallery Credit: Brian Lee

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