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Crews speed storm repairs as outages continue in wintry Fairbanks

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published November 15, 2013

FAIRBANKS -- Utility crews, supplemented by reinforcements from Anchorage, continued the round-the-clock effort to restore power to thousands of people as temperatures dropped near zero.

Some of the more remote and more heavily damaged facilities and power poles may not be repaired for several days, the Golden Valley Electric Association said. By Saturday morning, however, the number of houses lacking power was down to 2,500, according to GVEA, as some 50 linemen worked in the dark to restore power to Alaska's second-largest city.

For people outside of town with woodstoves and generators, the blackout that began with an unusual two-hour windstorm early Thursday is a major inconvenience. For those without backup energy supplies, the challenge is how to keep houses from freezing up. The forecast calls for lows around 8 below zero Saturday night.

While people without power snapped up every available generator Thursday from the shelves of local stores, other residents tried a variety of portable stoves, leading to warnings about the potential for carbon monoxide poisoning.

For one Fairbanks homeowner without power, Friday turned out to be the ideal day to get backup heat. She had given her woodstove to her son last winter and hadn't replaced it just yet. Then the power went out.

Martha Springer, relying on candlelight in the Rosie Creek neighborhood west of Fairbanks, ordered a woodstove from The Woodway and had it delivered by the afternoon. She had all the connections from the last wood stove and was able to keep the temperature in her house from dipping below the 40s.

By Friday evening, GVEA said it continued to get more houses back online by the hour in subdivisions across the area, but it did not have an updated estimate as to how many places are still powerless.

Earlier, GVEA estimated 3,000 homes were without power.

It's just an estimate because the utility does not have a central monitoring system to determine who has power and who does not. Managers and engineers based estimates on reports from members and crews in the field.

In some ways the situation rivals the prolonged power outage that hit Fairbanks in September 1992, when an unusual storm dumped heavy snow at a time when the leaves were still green on every birch and aspen tree. Many people lost power then for five days or longer.

The weight of the snow in the branches bent the trees over by the thousands. In many forested areas near Fairbanks, the aftermath of that storm is still visible in the form of large birch and aspen trees that remain as bent as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

This time, the problems began when hundreds of large old spruce trees either splintered or tipped over at the roots when high winds hit from midnight to 2 a.m. Thursday. The root systems on the spruce trees tend to be shallow, and the old trees gave way during the unprecedented winds.

"We have fewer trees doing more damage this time," said Allen Gray, power systems manager for GVEA.

Wind gusts of 55 mph were recorded at the airport, while speeds reached 70 mph on the roof of the GVEA offices near downtown.

The trees broke wires and ruined equipment on poles, creating damage that may take several hours to repair at each site.

The GVEA electrical system contains more than 3,000 miles of power lines, with larger lines serving as a backbone, connecting to smaller branch lines that run into subdivisions and down to individual houses.

Gray said GVEA is focused on getting the neighborhood branch lines repaired as quickly as possible to serve the largest number of people and it has yet to reach all of the smallest lines to assess the damage.

"We don't know the extent of the longer period outages yet because we haven't been to them yet," he said.

This means that homes that are on the smallest of the electrical branches may have to wait several days before the lines are repaired.

"Unfortunately, we cannot give you a timeline of when power will be restored, but we can assure you that we're working around the clock," GVEA said.

On Friday night, there were crews at Haystack, Chena Hot Springs Road, North Pole, Chena Ridge, Cripple Creek, Rosie Creek, University West, Foxtail (Ballaine/Goldstream) and Two Rivers.

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

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