The blinding mix of snow and high wind that stranded hundreds of highway drivers and kept weary travellers from their homes for hours last weekend - forcing small communities to cozy up to strangers and wait for spring - was sent to southern Alberta from more tropical climes.
Meteorologists are calling Sunday's storm a "Pineapple Express" that worked its way across the Pacific and brought heavy rain through the interior of B.C. When it got east of the Rockies, the rain storm turned to snow, dumping about 40 centimetres on Castle Mountain and 12 to 15 centimetres over Lethbridge, according to Environment Canada meteorologist Bill McMurtry. In Lethbridge, wind speeds peaked at 85 kilometres per hour, kicking up the snow and causing white-out conditions that closed several highways in and around southern Alberta. For about two and a half hours, city residents were unable to cross the Old Man River to get to or from west Lethbridge as both Whoop-Up Drive and the Highway 3 bridge were temporarily closed.
The storm - for many an unwelcome reminder of winter just two days after sunny, dry conditions sparked grass fires around the city - wasn't technically a blizzard.
"But if you were out in it, you'd call it a blizzard, because it was white-out conditions with lots of snow," Calgary-based McMurtry said.
As they dealt with a continuous stream of car crashes, police closed several roads during the storm, which began in Lethbridge Sunday morning and had ended by Monday morning.
Highway 3 from Lethbridge to Brocket, Highway 2 from Nanton to Cardston, Highway 519 from Highway 2 to Highway 23 and Highway 23 from Barons to Highway 3, were all closed for a few hours in the afternoon, forcing drivers to detour into the nearest town. Many hotels were completely booked, leaving many stranded travellers to look for warm hearts and welcome shelter. About 325 people registered at an emergency shelter set up at the Claresholm arena, where visitors were treated to an impromptu hockey game from two travelling AA teams who couldn't make it to their scheduled game in Stavely. In Nanton, about 100 snowed-in travellers showed up at the community centre and more than 250 people sought shelter a bit further south in Fort Macleod.
Between 300 and 400 cars were stranded on the highway between Fort Macleod and Lethbridge during the storm, estimated the town's chief administrative officer, David Connauton.
Connauton, also Fort Macleod's director of emergency services, said some accidents may have been avoided if roadways were closed sooner, given the extremely poor driving conditions.
"It's very lucky that we didn't have a bunch of fatalities," he said. "There were a few very close calls."
Local collision statistics from Sunday's storm were not available Monday.
But communities came together, recruiting local restaurants and grocery stores to donate food to stranded guests and volunteering to open their homes to those in need of a place to stay.
"It's very vital," Connauton said. "I think it actually saves lives in the end."
In Milk River, 85 kilometres south of Lethbridge, Mayor Terry Michaelis proved he isn't quick to forget a past kindness. Recalling a still-fresh memory of last September's grass fire forcing the town's residents out of their homes, Michaelis took four people into his own home for the night and helped arrange volunteer billets for nearly 30 others.
"We didn't want them on the roads because there was a complete white-out," he said.
Some of the stranded travellers were from Bonnyville, Calgary, Lethbridge, and the "delightful young people" who stayed with him had been on their way back from a weekend in Great Falls.
Michaelis was taking the "spring blizzard" in stride as a good way to meet new people.
"It was just a wonderful experience for us to be able to help them out," he said.
More flurries are forecast for later this week, but sun-worshippers may find some respite on Saturday and Sunday, with projected highs of 14 degrees above zero, meteorologist McMurtry said.
"The forecast might be a little on the optimistic side, but it does look like a bit of a warming trend as we head toward the weekend," he said.