Windstorm hammers North Idaho

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER & CRAIG NORTHRUP
Hagadone News Network | September 10, 2020 1:00 AM

BONNERS FERRY — Like other areas in North Idaho, Boundary County was hard hit by Monday's windstorm which wreaked havoc in the area, knocking out power to more than 60,000 people and toppling trees all over the region.

As the storm kicked off, Boundary County Sheriff's Office issued a Nixle alert warning residents there were widespread power outages with multiple trees in roadways throughout the county.

"Be cautious of trees and power lines during this wind event," the sheriff's office said in the alert. "If you are able to stay home please do."

Crews from area utility companies had restored power to most of their customers after fierce winds Monday knocked down trees and cut power lines to residents across the region. Outages were reported by companies in Boundary, Bonner and Kootenai counties, both at the height of the windstorm and continuing as trees fell throughout the day, weakened by the winds. However, as of late Wednesday morning, Northern Lights, Inc., which includes customers in Boundary County, reported it still had 2,072 members without power including some near the border, the Copeland area, Meadow Creek and east of Moyie Springs. Scattered outages also were reported elsewhere in the county.

At the height of the storm, wWind gusts reaching 60 mph toppled trees and broke branches, severing lines and cutting power to more than 36,000 Avista Utilities customers, 12,000 Northern Lights, Inc., customers and 11,000 Kootenai Electric customers.

A total of 55 employees and contractors were in the field for Kootenai Electric. Avista sent similar numbers to North Idaho during and after the storm. On Monday, Avista had reported as many as 36,000 were without power in its eastern Washington and North Idaho service areas. But by early Wednesday afternoon, only 400 North Idahoans under Avista’s care were without power, mostly in Bonner County.

“We want to thank our customers for their patience as we’ve worked to assess damage, restore power and provide estimated restoration times for all customers who lost power as a result of this storm,” Dennis Vermillion, Avista president and CEO, said in a statement. “We understand being without power can be difficult, particularly when so many are working and learning from home. We continue to dedicate all available resources to restoring the remaining customers.”

Among the areas hardest hit by the storm was the Sam Owen Campground near Hope in Bonner County, where campers reported a hundred or more trees were toppled by the high winds.

Hillary Main was staying at the campground with her family, husband and two young sons when the storm hit.

"We’re all OK, but it was pretty scary," Main said. "The campground took a major hit from the storm. Trees were cracking and falling all around us."

Main said it was terrifying to be at the campground, which suffered a lot of damage as well as to the vehicles, boats and RVs of those at the site. to the campground and to people’s vehicles and RVs.

"We were all trapped in there and couldn’t leave because the road was blocked by trees that fell," Main said. "[We] had to get down to the beach in a hurry where it was safe as trees were falling all over the place.

"It felt like one of those natural disaster movies we were stuck in. I think we are all a little shell shocked today. We had a good camping trip until that happened."

Perhaps the most terrifying was she was helping her sons, who were in the back of her father-in-law's pickup, get dressed out of the pajamas so the family could go to the beach where it was safer when her husband yelled at her to run.

"I looked up and the tree was coming down right over my head," said Main, who was standing by the truck's right-side back door. "It happened so fast. We are just so happy our boys are safe. I did a lot of crying yesterday just thinking about how worse it could have been."

Neff stressed that trees in or near electric rights-of-way can become dangerous during high wind storms, saying that the best way to keep the lights on is to manage nearby trees and brush.

“Public safety and power reliability are top priorities,” the Kootenai Electric representative said. “Trees growing in the electric right-of-way or those growing in close proximity are both wildfire and reliability hazards. To keep our members and the general public safe, KEC has both the right as well as the obligation to remove or otherwise manage vegetation in our right-of-way and proximity.”

In Boundary County, local law enforcement responded to a heavy stream of calls throughout the day, with trees and power lines reported down and across roadways.

Avista officials said the storm caused damage to both the transmission and distribution systems, with the primary damage involving trees coming into contact with lines and bringing wires down. In addition to outages being reported well into the afternoon, Avista’s system operated under dry land mode, an approach to decrease the potential for wildfires and requires crews to physically patrol certain rural and forested areas before the lines can be re-energized.

Avista said crews typically first work to restore power to critical infrastructure, such as transmission lines and substations, and emergency facilities like hospitals. Once critical customers are restored, crews would then work to make repairs that will restore power along impacted distribution feeder lines to a larger number of customers.

That could leave some customers without power while their neighbors have been restored. Crews will come back through to restore individual outages in neighborhoods, Avista officials said.