By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - A powerful Arctic cold front blanketed the western and central United States on Wednesday, dropping heavy snow on the Colorado Rockies across to the Great Lakes and bringing frigid temperatures across the region.
Some mountain locations west of the Continental Divide could see up to 3 feet of snow before the system moves on, said Jim Kalina, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder, Colorado.
The cold snap sent bitter chills across many areas of the U.S. west, and the storm stretched across the Dakotas to northeastern Minnesota where up to 3 feet of snow could fall along the north shore of Lake Superior, the weather service said.
In California, a hard freeze warning was in effect for much of the state's inland agricultural breadbasket, sending farmers scrambling to protect crops. Homeowners covered landscaping with towels and blankets to keep off the worst of the cold.
"We haven't seen a cold snap this early in the year that has lasted so long for 30 or 40 years," said Luke Robinson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Missoula, Montana.
The freezing weather also complicated a search in Idaho for a small plane carrying five people that vanished Sunday in rugged mountains after its pilot reported engine trouble.
Rescue crews battled deep snows and plummeting temperatures for signs of the single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza piloted by Dale Smith, a San Jose-based business executive who had been flying his two adult children and their spouses home after spending the Thanksgiving holiday in Oregon.
A power outage in eastern Idaho left 40,000 customers near the campus of Brigham Young University-Idaho without power as temperatures in the region plunged to 15 below zero, authorities said.
WET SNOW AND CAR CRASHES
In Denver, temperatures plummeted 40 degrees into the single digits in a matter of hours overnight as a bitter cold air mass descended from Canada. About 5 inches of snow fell in the city overnight, causing roadways to ice up.
A handful of flights were canceled at Denver International Airport, mostly headed to mountain regional airports, airport spokeswoman Julie Smith said.
The heaviest snow in Colorado was falling in the southwest part of the state as icy, snow packed roads and "zero to low visibility," closed at least one mountain pass, the Colorado Department of Transportation said in an alert.
The frigid conditions were expected to hover over Colorado for several more days, dropping overnight temperatures below zero, the weather service said.
In Minnesota, heavy wet snow was continuing and nearly 200 crashes were reported across the state by the Minnesota State Patrol on Wednesday, although none involved serious injuries.
More than 15 inches of snow had fallen in Duluth, Minnesota, by Wednesday morning, forcing school closings and dozens of crashes, but city offices were open. The storm was expected to bring another foot of snow or more.
The three days of the storm could reach into the top 10 recorded in Duluth, but was not expected to approach a record 36.8 inches that fell in a 1991 storm, the weather service said.
Not everyone was put off by the snow.
"This puts us in good shape for the rest of the season," said Renee Mattson, executive director at Spirit Mountain, a Duluth ski area that opened in mid November, two weeks earlier than normal.
The snow really helps with the base and, "having all of this natural snowfall puts everyone in the mind for winter sports," Mattson added. "If you see a brown backyard you assume there are no winter sports and the whole area is covered by white."
(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver, David Bailey in Minneapolis, Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento. Editing by Andre Grenon)