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Winter storm cancels flights, closes schools in Canada

TORONTO (AP) — A major winter storm hitting Ontario and Quebec on Friday caused widespread flight cancellations and school closures, and knocked out power to hundreds of thousands of customers on Friday, with an Environment Canada meteorologist warning of a possible once-in-a-decade weather event.

Environment Canada predicted strong winds, heavy snowfall and possible flash freezing, issuing winter storm warnings for the vast majority of Ontario and Quebec.

“We may only see one of these storms every five or 10 years,” said Environment Canada meteorologist Mitch Meredith. “I’ve only seen a couple of storms like this in the last 20 years.”

Environment Canada said flash, or sudden, freezes were likely as rain turned to heavy snow on Friday in parts of southern Ontario, creating dangerous driving conditions.

Ontario Provincial Police shut down Highway 401 west of London on Friday morning after reporting multiple collisions. Meanwhile, strong winds began to wreak havoc on provincial utilities. Hydro Quebec said outages were affecting more than 225,000 customers.

Hydro One, Ontario’s largest electricity utility, said roughly 45,000 customers were without power as of 11 a.m. Hydro Ottawa said 25,000 customers were without power, mainly due to branches downing wires. In Quebec, many regions were expected to receive a mix of heavy snow, rain and strong winds.

The storm upended holiday travel plans for thousands of people as airlines preemptively canceled flights, with more disruptions expected.

WestJet, Canada’s second largest airline, announced late Thursday that it was canceling flights at airports in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. It announced 300 “proactive” flight cancellations on Friday for B.C., southern Ontario and Quebec due to the bad weather. That brought the airline’s total cancellations since Monday to 1,196, according to an emailed statement.

Air Canada said Friday that it had canceled “a number of flights” in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, including all of its flights out of Toronto’s downtown island airport, citing the storm, reduced airport capacity and operational constraints.

Rob Milton, who was travelling with his wife, said their flight to Quebec was canceled Friday morning out of Toronto’s Pearson airport, throwing a major wrench in the couple’s plans to celebrate Christmas in Quebec City. “We had a hotel in Quebec booked; we had to cancel it. We had restaurants; we had to cancel those. We had the whole weekend planned,” he said at the airport.

Daniel Araya, who was traveling with his family from Chile to Vancouver, was stuck at Pearson after his fight was delayed due to the weather.

“We really are hoping for a Christmas miracle,” he said. “We spent a lot of time to get here and it will be really sad if we can’t make it to Vancouver to see my sister.”

The Toronto Transit Commission took out of service 41 bus stops in hilly areas that are difficult to navigate in snowy and icy conditions. GO Transit, which serves the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, canceled express trains and reduced train service during peak times.