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Snow blanketing Appalachian Mountains, sending out snow plows and skiers weeks early

Snow plows were out in parts of the southern Appalachian mountains Monday, preparing for as much as 3 feet of snow in higher elevations spawned by the merger of a winter storm with Hurricane Sandy.

The early snowfall could be a boon for the area's ski resorts, which have sometimes struggled to keep their slopes open with a warming climate.

Forecasters in West Virginia expanded a blizzard warning to at least 14 counties for high winds and heavy, wet snow. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency.

"We're not taking it lightly," Marlinton Volunteer Fire Department Capt. Gene Tracy said. "We're preparing for the worst — power outages — and getting ready to cut trees if they block the roads."

National Weather Service meteorologist Tim Axford said the overwhelming majority of residents live in lower elevations where significantly less snow was expected. No significant power outages were reported Monday.

Highway crews embarked on snow-removal efforts in several areas, including along Interstates 64 and 77 in West Virginia. Schools were closed in at least 11 counties.

By late afternoon, the snow was coming down hard in Elkins, W.Va., where folks were taking it in stride.

Most were less concerned with the snow and more concerned about being without power for days on end, as they were after the late June "derecho" wind storm.

Brandy Wildman, 35, was buying a tank of propane so she could cook on the grill if the power to her Mill Creek home failed.

"I've lived in West Virginia my whole life, so the snow doesn't bother me," she said. "What does bother me is, last time, we were without power for nine days. And that's a problem, because it's going to be cold."

Ben Clark, a stay-at-home dad and college graduate student, bought a six-pack of beer and a bottle of wine at a convenience store, after previously stocking up on supplies for his 5-month and 4-year-old sons.

"We have plenty of food in the fridge, and we're avid, outdoor-hiking-recreation people, so we've got camp stoves and all kinds of stuff," Clark said. "I'm actually ready to put the cross-country skis on. I'm hoping we get 2-3 feet!

Farther south in Boone, N.C., as much as a foot of snow was expected at higher elevations as the temperature hovered just below freezing. North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue expanded her earlier emergency declaration to include 24 mountain counties.

Watauga County Emergency Management Director Steve Sudderth said wet, heavy snow began falling early Monday morning but the ground was warm enough to keep it from sticking to roads. Most of it was accumulating above 4,000 feet. Boone averages nearly 3 feet of snowfall each winter.

Sugar Mountain spokeswoman Kim Jochl said Monday the ski resort had already received a couple inches of natural snow and snow makers had been running since Sunday night.

The resort plans to open Wednesday for Halloween, the earliest Sugar has ever been able to open in 43 years of operation. Jochl said the earliest opening date previously was Nov. 6, 1976.

"It's unprecedented," she said.

At Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina, about 6.5 inches fell overnight at the highest elevations, spokeswoman Dana Soehn said. Wind gusts of 32 miles an hour were reported at Clingman's Dome, the highest point in Tennessee.

"Our biggest concern is folks who are hiking the Appalachian Trail," she said.

Park officials posted winter weather advisories at spots along the trail where AT hikers are required to get registered. She said there have been several cancellations and 50 registered overnight backpackers planned to spend the night at shelters.

In Kentucky, transportation crews were preparing their equipment to clear snow.

"The temperatures are still fairly warm, so we will not be pre-treating," said Miranda Thacker, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet. "We will begin plowing when the snow starts to fall."

In the mountain counties of Virginia, residents rushed to hardware and grocery stores to stock up.

In Damascus, Va., Corinne Cole was buying a kerosene heater in case the power went out, plus a 5-gallon fuel container and a candle.

"I'm ready. Got lots of food, alcohol and party supplies. And cat food for the cat," she said. "It's just a reason to have a party."

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Biesecker reported from Raleigh, N.C. Associated Press writers contributing to this report were Kristin M. Hall in Nashville, Tenn.; Vicki Smith in Terra Alta, W.Va.; and Lawrence Messina in Charleston, W.Va.

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Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck