More than a month before the official start of winter, many Mainers will see their first significant snowstorm of the season on Friday.

Most of southern and central Maine could get 4 to 8 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service office in Gray.

In Portland, the weather service forecast heavy snow falling Friday morning, likely causing problems with the morning commute. It could turn to sleet in places between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Friday.

“It’s one of those situations where the farther inland you are, the drier the snow,” said Derek Schroeter, a weather service meteorologist. “But closer to the coast, there will be more moisture and the snow will be denser.”

AAA Northern New England issued a statement Thursday urging motorists to prepare their vehicles for winter driving conditions.

“Friday morning’s predicted snowfall mix will make for dangerous conditions on roadways for commuters going to and from work and school,” AAA spokesman Pat Moody said. “Budget extra time, extra space, take it slow and keep a vigilant eye on the traffic conditions.”

Moody said AAA’s fleet of two trucks and crews prepared for Friday’s weather and anticipated responding to members’ calls for help with dead batteries, flat tires and tows.

The South Portland Police Department posted a lighthearted winter driving reminder on its Facebook page Thursday night. In the post, police urge drivers to slow down, limit distractions, and increase distances between you and the car you are following. “The word snow sounds so gentle, but let’s more technically define it as atmospheric water vapor frozen into dangerous ice crystals from outer space,” the post says. “So with such alienesque material laying on the ground – on our streets – tomorrow, we thought this would be a good time to remind you that you’ve forgotten absolutely everything that you learned last winter about driving in, on and around snow and ice!”

At least two southern Maine colleges did not wait for the nasty weather to strike.

Southern Maine Community College in South Portland and the University of Southern Maine, with campuses in Gorham, Portland and Lewiston, announced on their websites and on social media that they would be closed Friday because of the storm.

Several communities also announced parking bans, with most taking effect at midnight Thursday. Bans were scheduled in Auburn, Brunswick, Kennebunkport, Lisbon Falls, Rumford, Sanford and Windham. Windham’s ban was to go into effect at 9 p.m. Thursday.

“Please help the public works crews keep the roads clear,” the Windham Police Department tweeted.

Portland police also got involved in the tweet storm.

“For all who are in denial like we are, winter is here. Let this tweet from the your favorite PD serve as a reminder to take things slow and give yourself plenty of time to get where you’re going. You’re better off late than not arriving at all.”

“It’s looking like it’s going a be a pretty tough morning commute,” Schroeter said. “Some parts could see one inch per hour after midnight so we’re looking at several inches on the ground by (sunrise).”

A winter storm warning was issued for the hours of 1 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday for parts of the state.

The storm is likely to move out quickly by Friday evening and Saturday’s weather looks pleasant with temperatures warming into the 40s.

Average date of first snow is not an official statistic, but the weather service office in Gray has been keeping track informally and counts Nov. 25 as the average date for southern Maine. Still, it’s not uncommon for snow to fall well before that.

On Tuesday, up to 8 inches of snow was reported in parts of Franklin, Oxford and Somerset counties.

Schroeter said Portland has seen at least 20 inches before December many times but not since 1997. He said the average snowfall for all of November in Portland is 3.3 inches. That’s likely to be eclipsed.

In 2011, a little more than 5 inches of snow fell on Portland – some towns saw more than a foot – in a pre-Halloween storm.

Some pockets of northern and western Maine saw measurable snow late last month, but much of the state has been spared.

The storm has already caused at least seven deadly traffic crashes and closed schools as it dropped snow as far south as central Alabama.

As much as 8 inches blanketed the St. Louis area. Roads in Ohio were clogged by midday Thursday, where officials reported at least one traffic death that was likely weather-related. Indiana State Police also reported a death early Thursday, which they said was caused by a 60-year-old woman driving too fast on a slick road.

In Mississippi, a tour bus bound for a casino overturned, killing two people and injuring 44 others. And in the Little Rock, Arkansas, area, three people were killed in separate crashes on icy roads Wednesday night, while Interstate 40 was shut down overnight in the eastern part of the state because of several crashes. The interstate reopened shortly before daybreak Thursday, but officials said traffic was slow-going because some drivers had fallen asleep.

Witnesses told Mississippi investigators the tour bus driver lost control after crossing an icy overpass and the bus rolled over on its driver’s side, coming to rest in the median of Interstate 269 in Byhalia around 12:35 p.m., Mississippi Highway Patrol spokesman Capt. Johnny Poulos said.

“All of a sudden the bus started swerving, then it spun around two times, hit the rail and then flipped over,” bus passenger Veronica Love told news outlets as she left a hospital after the wreck. “The second spin, it started picking up speed. It was, I mean, what could you do?”

The crash happened about 35 miles southeast of downtown Memphis, Tennessee.

Killed were Betty Russell, 70, and Cynthia Hardin, 61, both of Huntsville, Alabama, said DeSoto County Coroner Joshua Pounders. The injured were taken to Memphis-area hospitals, with at least three listed in serious condition Wednesday evening.

In Virginia, the planned launch early Thursday of an unmanned cargo rocket to the International Space Station was rescheduled by one day because of the weather, NASA said. The unmanned Cygnus cargo craft is now scheduled to lift off early Friday from Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore carrying supplies and research materials for the astronauts at the space station.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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