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HELENA — The first major ice jam of 2012 is a reminder that damaging floods are a fact of life along many Montana rivers and streams, even in the middle of winter, and residents in flood-prone areas should take steps to safeguard their loved ones, property and possessions.

“We’re in the early stage of ice jam season,” said Mary Sexton, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“More than 80 percent of ice jams and associated flooding take place between January and March. About 50 percent of all reported ice jams in Montana occur in March, followed by February with 21 percent and January with 11 percent. So the most active time is still ahead.”

Last week, officials in Broadwater County responded to flooding caused by an ice jam on the Missouri River near Townsend. Roads were closed and two popular campgrounds flooded. At least one residence had floodwater in its basement, while another homeowner was advised to construct a sandbag dike around his home.

Montana has the highest number of reported ice jams in the lower 48 states, according to National Weather Service statistics. The most ice jams ever recorded in a single season was 75 in 1996. In more recent years, 2006 produced 14 ice jams, 2011 produced 23, and 2004 accounted for 45.

“We’ve had quite a lot of variability with our temperatures this winter - warm spells interspersed with cold. That actually has been a good thing as far as mitigating ice buildup,” Sexton said. “But as we’ve just seen in Townsend, when it happens, it happens quickly. Residents need to be prepared.”

Sexton encouraged residents in flood-prone areas to consider purchasing flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program. In most cases, there’s a 30-day wait for the policy to become active so residents should plan ahead. It’s also smart to take an inventory of belongings in the home and make an emergency plan for evacuating if a flood occurs.

More information on the National Flood Insurance Program and flood preparation can be found at www.floodsmart.gov.

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