Start out early, or wait until Thanksgiving Day.

That’s the advice from weather forecasters and law enforcement officers to Mainers planning to drive over the holiday as a large wintry storm heads this way.

Early forecasts suggest that a large snowfall is not in store for coastal New England. Even so, the region – including Maine – is still likely to experience a significant storm and very heavy rains – as much as 2 to 4 inches throughout the busiest hours of driving on Wednesday, said Tim Hawley, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray.

The exact course of the storm is not certain, but as of Sunday night it appeared that some light snow might fall in the northernmost parts of Maine as the tail end of the storm moves through the region, Hawley said.

“In Portland it looks like heavy rain unless something drastic changes,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean traveling in New England will be a breeze, Hawley said.

With the storm heading east and a second storm moving down out of the north, rough weather is likely to produce treacherous driving conditions, including icy roads, he said.

The storm has been blamed for at least eight deaths in traffic accidents in the West. It brought snow to Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest on Sunday, leading to hundreds of flight cancellations.

The long Thanksgiving weekend will see a variety of precipitation – possibly starting as sleet, freezing rain or snow before dawn Wednesday and then changing over to rain by 8 or 9 a.m., Hawley said. Temperatures are expected to stay well above freezing, reaching as high as 47 in southern Maine and topping out near 60 degrees in Boston. But by Thanksgiving, the mercury will start dropping again.

That pattern likely means the snow will hold off, but it won’t stop the bad weather altogether.

“It’s going to be raining fairly hard right through (Wednesday) afternoon,” Hawley said. And the remnants of the day’s downpours might produce light snow by Wednesday night or icy roads Thanksgiving morning.

Rain poses special challenges for motorists, police noted.

“Oh, boy,” Chief Deputy William King of the York County Sheriff’s Department said Sunday, as concerned about forecasts of blinding rain as he would be about a major winter storm.

He cautioned drivers not to be lulled into a false sense of security simply because the snow may pass us by.

With rain, “visibility is horrible,” King said, and wet roads can become particularly tricky at night.

And this is the time of year when people have to relearn how to drive sensibly under rough conditions. “People have to re-acclimate to driving,” King said, whatever the mix of wintry elements.

AAA estimates that 43.4 million Americans will travel more than 50 miles between Wednesday and Sunday, spanning Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

“It’s one of the busiest travel weekends,” said Sgt. Eric Berquist of the Maine State Police.

“It’s always better when we have rain (rather) than snow,” Berquist said. But it’s still worthwhile to make time before the storm starts to be sure your vehicle is properly equipped, particularly with good tires that can handle the extra challenges of poor traction on roadways.

Unfortunately, seemingly little details, like windshield wipers that can handle the punishment of driving rain, are “one of those things you only think of when it’s raining and then it’s too late,” Berquist said.

His recommendations for motorists: Reduce speed in heavy traffic or inclement conditions; leave plenty of distance between your vehicle and the one ahead; make sure everyone in the car is wearing a seat belt; and factor in plenty of extra time to reach your destination without feeling stressed or pressured.

“Take that extra time,” said King. “Take those extra precautions.”

“We’re hoping for powder,” said Darcy Morse, director of communications for the Sunday River ski resort in Newry. “It would be speculative to say what will happen … but we’re pretty optimistic.”

Regardless of the storm’s outcome, “conditions are awesome right now,” she said.

With a base of 1 to 2 feet and 21 trails open, ski conditions at Sunday River are some of the best ever seen in November, she said, crediting weeks of good snow-making weather. 

– The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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