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Powerless to stop it, Fairbanks will bear up under heavy September snow

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 7, 2016
  • Published September 30, 2015

FAIRBANKS -- It's not that September snowfall is unheard of in Fairbanks, it's just that it usually arrives in small doses and fades fast.

Not this year. More than a foot of heavy, wet snow fell in the hills north of Fairbanks Tuesday. Unlike the fluffy material that falls in cold weather and scatters like dust, this was more like cold oatmeal.

It coated and stuck to tree branches like glue. Before long, millions of trees swayed in the slight breeze, unsteady as novices on ice skates.

All day long I could hear the crack of birch and aspen limbs that refused to put up with it anymore, stressed beyond the breaking point. Those that I saw fell harmlessly, but we live in a part of Alaska where there are always healthy-looking trees with shallow roots just waiting for the slightest encouragement to snap like abused pencils.

A couple of trees decided to fall apart close to where I live, about 10 miles outside of town, One of them tumbled across half of the road and I had to remove it. At least it wasn't on the house. I flashed back to a moment decades ago when I had to remove a tree with a decided list, just to make sure it would not hit the house. "You sure you know what you're doing, dad?" my son asked. "Of course," I replied, seconds before the tree smacked the front porch with an unwelcome thud.

But as I said, the offending trees Tuesday weren't near the house and they were already on the ground. I kept wondering when the flickering power would go out. The uncertainty ended at about 2 p.m. and I quickly assembled a portion of my emergency flashlight stockpile. It's a theory of mine that you can never have enough flashlights in Fairbanks.

Thousands of us in Fairbanks put them to good use, as the widespread outages continued Wednesday, largely because hundreds of trees hit power lines throughout wooded neighborhoods. The last time this happened in a big way was in 2013, when November winds that hit 70 mph did most of the damage.

The snow that sticks until April doesn't usually arrive here until about the middle of October. This year may be no different, if the temperatures rise into the 40s in the days to come.

There is one memorable exception to the rule that September snows don't last. It was a 1992 snowstorm that took place when the leaves on every tree were still green, unwilling to break off and float to the ground. Carrots and potatoes had yet to be harvested and no one had put away the lawn furniture. From all appearances, it was still summer when winter hit.

The thick branches and leaves collected snow better than any shovel and the weight piled up. Top-heavy trees couldn't keep their balance. Thousands snapped onto power lines. Others slowly bowed down to the ground from on high, proving to be as flexible as yoga practitioners. They never felt the need to straighten up when the snow melted the following spring.

Even today, you can walk into the woods anywhere in this part of the state and see birch and aspen trees in the shape of semicircles. If you don't know the history, you might find them as odd as crop circles in Kansas.

Whenever I see one of those trees performing a perpetual bow, I am reminded that the power was out at our house for five days that time and we cooked on the wood stove. The kids thought it was a great adventure and took it all in stride. The kids are grown and gone now, but on days like this I need to force myself to remember that lesson.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com.

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