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Winter returned with a vengeance Monday, dumping heavy lake-effect snow across portions of the Buffalo Niagara region, with a particular fury in the Southtowns and the Southern Tier.

Frigid temperatures also are forecast, especially for today and Wednesday, when area highs probably won’t reach 15 degrees.

“We’re finally back to the dead of winter, and it looks like it’s going to last for a while,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Jon Hitchcock. “This probably will be the coldest we’ve seen in a couple of years.”

Snowfall totals were still mounting late Monday, especially throughout southern Erie, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties, as law enforcement in those areas closed down some roadways because of hazardous travel.

They also warned motorists to travel the Thruway “at their own risk.”

National Weather Service spotters reported that a foot of snow fell Monday as of Monday night in Ripley. In Perrysburg in nearby northern Cattaraugus County, 10 inches of snow was already on the ground at about 7:30 p.m. – with more piling up. One of the highest readings reported Monday night in Erie County was in Colden, which had 8 inches. Meanwhile, only 1.5 inches had fallen at Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga.

“It’s kind of like winter finally decided to show up,” said Jeff Wood, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Buffalo, who explained that a large “upper-level” trough was ushering extremely cold air into the area.

When that cold air crosses the warmer, open waters of the Great Lakes, that can mean big-time snow, measured by the yardstick.

“It’s a very cold air mass setting up over the lakes, and the lakes are still open,” Wood said. “It’s certainly not out of the ordinary for January.”

“The highest accumulation areas are going to be mainly east of Lake Ontario and, of course, in our area, from the Southtowns on south,” he added.

Chautauqua County authorities reported 36 weather-related vehicular accidents Monday. Heavy snow closed the westbound lanes of Interstate 86 between Sherman and the Pennsylvania state line because of “multiple accidents” related to the weather. Tow truck operators reported to deputies that there were “no guarantees” they could reach motorists stranded because of the heavy snowfall.

Earlier Monday, the westbound Thruway was closed for about an hour between exit 57A, Eden-Angola, and the Pennsylvania line due to a series of accidents, including a multi-vehicle pileup. The Thruway reopened shortly after 6 p.m., with the left lane still blocked to traffic, according to the authority.

Crashes also were reported earlier between exits 59 in Dunkirk and 60 in Westfield, and between Eden and Silver Creek, as well as on the eastbound Thruway near the Pennsylvania border.

Other weather-related mishaps on roadways included:

• A single-vehicle crash on West Perimeter Road in Steamburg at 1:15 p.m. The vehicle spun off the icy road and struck a building. The unidentified driver was not injured, Cattaraugus County sheriff’s deputies reported.

• A Niagara County crash on Lockport-Olcott Road at about 1:40 p.m. in which at least one person had to be extricated from a vehicle. The crash at Dale Road involved two vehicles and a tractor-trailer, sheriff’s deputies said. One person was taken to the Eastern Niagara Hospital in Newfane for treatment of injuries that were not life-threatening.

The storm started Monday morning by hugging the Lake Erie shoreline in southern Erie and Chautauqua counties.

The Weather Service calls for snow totals of up to one to two feet in southern Erie and Chautauqua counties through this evening. Cattaraugus, Wyoming and Allegany counties also are expected to be hit.

This lake-effect snow band, though, is expected to leave northern Erie, Niagara, Orleans and Genesee counties relatively unscathed, with those areas expected to receive only a few inches of snow.

The record book shows Feb. 10, 2011, was the last time the region had a high temperatures of 15 degrees or colder. Hitting that mark again “looks like a pretty good bet [today] and Wednesday,” Hitchcock said.

The frigid forecast prompted the Buffalo City Mission to issue a Code Blue alert, which is put in effect on nights when temperatures are expected to drop below 10 degrees – or below zero with wind chill. During those times, the mission opens its warming center at 150 E. North St., offering food, shelter and clothing for those in need.

Fortunately, the forecast also calls for clouds, which will insulate the region a bit at night. Lows are expected into the single digits, but not below zero. Still, strong winds could send wind chills down to as low as 15 degrees below zero in some areas the next couple days.

News Staff Reporter Matt Gryta contributed to this report. email: tpignataro@buffnews.com and gwarner@buffnews.com