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Isolated power outages continue as Fairbanks prepares for subzero cold snap

Dermot Cole
A clump of four downed trees in the Hamilton Acres neighborhood will need to be removed using a 50-ton crane. Jon Odsather of Alaska Stump Grinders hopes to move a crane into position later this week. Courtesy of Fairbanks Stump Grinders

FAIRBANKS — A dozen cabins in a neighborhood a couple of miles from the University of Alaska Fairbanks are among the 600 or so homes and businesses that remained off the electric grid in Fairbanks today because of widespread damage from the freak winter windstorm five days ago.

The sign at the end of their road, “GVEA, We Need Power!” sums up the thoughts of residents waiting to be electrified. The weather forecast calls for temperatures to drop to between 15 below and 30 below tonight. Residents of all but one of the cabins have temporarily moved to warmer quarters, waiting until the Golden Valley Electric Association restores power.

There are many similar stories from across the Tanana Valley, even though 98 percent of the members of the cooperative are back on line. The electric utility has 70 linemen repairing lines, hoping to get as many power problems fixed as soon as possible.

Wood stove helps

“Fortunately with the wood stove, it’s much warmer than it normally would be,” said Chas Jones, who resides in the one cabin in a section of the Farmers Loop neighborhood that has running water and a backup heat source, a woodstove. For the last few years, the woodstove has been a decorative feature in Jones' home. Not today.

The oil-fired burners in the cabins require electricity to operate, a service that stopped abruptly last Thursday during the midnight windstorm that brought gusts of 62 mph and higher, toppling hundreds of old spruce trees with shallow roots or that were rotten inside.

Jones, who is working on a doctorate in hydrology about how the changing climate affects people, said he and his wife, Johanna Carson, are trying to keep everything in perspective as they deal with camp stoves, lanterns, water jugs and wood. He said all he has to do to recognize how fortunate he is to think about the typhoon damage in the Philippines last week or the tornado in Illinois Sunday.

Still, he said, the power problems show that we have the ability to do more to prepare for problems that are manageable, like this episode.

“I think, as a community, situations like this emphasize how vulnerable we are in this period where it seems like environmental extremes are becoming the norm,” he said. “I think that as individuals, there are things that we can do to increase our resilience so we don’t have to straddle that edge so closely.”

Although Golden Valley crews have restored service to more than 13,000 customers since Thursday, many of the remaining problems affect clusters of homes -- or even individual houses. They may require replacing transformers, fixing broken poles and other time-consuming tasks.

Tending the generators

Susan Freel and her husband, Jerry, are among those who've lost power. They live less than four miles from the center of town off the Old Steese Highway. Almost all of their neighbors have power, but a generator is running outside their house.

“We’re on the list. We’re just one of the last ones because there’s only three of us on that transformer,” she said. “We heard it blow up.”

Since Thursday, residents such as the Freels have seen their lives taken over by the demands of caring for the generators they’ve rented, borrowed or bought to run their furnaces.  “One of the generators we rented had to be turned off every four hours. It’s kind of like having a baby, every four hours you’re out there taking care of it,” she said. “We went out to dinner last night and came back and both generators had run out of fuel and stopped working,” she said.

“It’s really a huge effort at these temperatures to keep the generators working, but the house is not going to freeze up because he’s taking care of  them. This has consumed him since Thursday morning. It’s not like flipping a switch and having the lights come on,” she said.

Plumber Daniel Slayden of Slayden Plumbing & Heating said that with colder temperatures on the way, there may be more reports of frozen water pipes in unheated homes. So far, he's been busy repairing furnace-control units damaged by power spikes.

Of course the real damage from frozen pipes is often unrecognized until the pipes thaw -- and after power is restored.

“With the temps getting down to 25 below in the next couple of days, that’s going to cause some problems,” he said. “I’ve talked to people that went to hotels, so who knows when it comes back what we’re looking at.”

The most obvious signs or damage can be found in the remains of old spruce trees, including some in urban neighborhoods that remain in precarious positions. Jon Odsather of Alaska Stump Grinders mentioned a clump of four trees in Hamilton Acres that only could be removed with a 50-ton crane. He hopes to move the crane into position later this week.

"There are four of them and believe it or not, there is no contact with the roof," he said on Facebook, which is why he said he needs a crane.  

People have responded to the power problems in many ways, from anger to acceptance. 

"Four days without power. So thankful for wood stove (and firewood) headlamps, stash of food, sauna, generator (limited use) and outhouse. But electricity would be kinda nice," Trudy Heffernan wrote on Facebook.

On Friday, Katharine Hood set up a Facebook group page, Alaskans Helping Alaskans, to highlight ways people could share information and resources. She had been without power 20 hours, but she was able to get on Facebook, which she said was an important lifeline, kept open by recharging her phone in the car.

Some of those who responded offered to share rooms, lend or rent generators and offer advice on how to handle the lack of power. The page has 336 "likes," and Hood, who works as an insurance agent in North Pole, said she plans to continue the page as a way to bring together those who need help and those who are offering help.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole