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Most power restored in north Whatcom, damages in the hundreds of thousands

Ice storm creates havoc in north Whatcom County

Work crews repair downed utility poles and power lines Jan. 2, 2018 near Sumas, Washington. A weekend ice storm left thousands without power, snapped power lines and forced Nooksack Valley School District to cancel classes.
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Work crews repair downed utility poles and power lines Jan. 2, 2018 near Sumas, Washington. A weekend ice storm left thousands without power, snapped power lines and forced Nooksack Valley School District to cancel classes.

Schools in the Nooksack Valley district were closed Tuesday as parts of northern Whatcom County remained in the grip of a weekend ice storm that knocked out power to about 150,000 homes and businesses across the U.S. and Canada, officials said.

Fewer than 80 Puget Sound Energy customers were without electricity Tuesday afternoon in Whatcom County, however, PSE officials said.

“I am going on 81 hours of no power,” Nancy Sanford of Sumas said Tuesday in response to a post on The Bellingham Herald’s Facebook page.

Some 10,000 Whatcom County homes and business were without power Saturday morning, down from about 45,000 at the height of the storm Friday night, PSE said.

Damage totals were still being assessed, said John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management. He said costs to Whatcom County and its cities were likely to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, in addition to PSE’s repair costs.

“This ice storm is certainly one for the record books,” Gargett said.

No deaths or serious injuries were blamed on the storm, he said.

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Crews put up new utility poles along Garrison Road near Sumas, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. About 500 residents in north Whatcom County remained without power after the weekend ice storm. Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

“It was simply not safe for either the public or emergency responders to be on the roads in the north county and many emergency crews had to pull back as trees, limbs and power poles fell throughout the night,” Gargett said.

PSE had no immediate damage estimate, said spokeswoman Janet Kim.

North county hit worst

Hardest-hit areas were Blaine, Ferndale, Lynden, Everson, Nooksack and Sumas – and especially the rural areas surrounding those cities near the U.S.-Canada border.

Jason Postma of Sumas said the storm was most intense north of Nooksack.

“I drove to Nooksack on Sunday and even then the two towns were like completely different worlds,” Postma said on Facebook. “Not a drop of snow or ice to be found in Nooksack, and then right around the high school the entire landscape changed to a solid sheet of white. Really crazy. And it hasn’t changed much since.”

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A utility pole lies in pieces Tuesday, Jan. 2 after a weekend ice storm in Sumas. About 500 residents in north Whatcom County remained without power, according to Puget Sound Energy. Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Nooksack Valley athletic director Tom Harmon said Everson received some rain on Friday, but conditions weren’t too bad.

“It was about halfway to the (high) school, around Tom Road, that it turned into ultra-Siberia,” Harmon said.

Nooksack Valley schools will be open Wednesday, district officials said Tuesday afternoon.

Caused by ‘Fraser outflow’

Johnny Burg, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Seattle, said the ice storm was caused by a common winter pattern called the “Fraser outflow,” which occurs when frigid air blows south from the Fraser River Valley of British Columbia.

Burg said the cold air collided with moist air from a low-pressure system that was moving across Western Washington.

Bellingham and areas south of the Mount Baker Highway mostly escaped the “silver thaw,” as temperatures remained mostly above freezing.

But as cold air breezed in from Canada, rain began to freeze in Lynden and Sumas, coating roads, trees and power lines with a thick layer of ice.

Branches broke and trees toppled under the weight, blocking roads or downing power lines.

Live power lines arced and crackled and danced across roads as firefighters, police officers and road crews could do nothing except keep people away.

“The weather sure threw us a curve, that’s for sure,” said Chief Jerry DeBruin of Whatcom County Fire District 14, a mostly volunteer agency serving Sumas, Kendall and Welcome.

“I’ve never seen so many poles go down,” said DeBruin.”Some of them were even uprooted.”

Fire department resources tested

Roads were slick, but the most serious threat was from falling trees, limbs and power lines, Gargett said.

Meanwhile, fire departments brought in off-duty career staff and asked volunteer firefighters to stay at their stations for a quicker response.

Chief Mel Blankers of Whatcom County Fire District 1, serving Everson and Nooksack, said his mostly volunteer fire department saw many more calls than normal.

“The farther north you went, the worse it got,” Blankers said. “We hung out at the station all night” Friday and assisted with calls in the Sumas area.

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Walkways and the parking lot outside Sumas Elementary remained coated in ice on Monday, Jan. 1 after a weekend ice storm left thousands without power. Schools in the Nooksack Valley School District were closed Tuesday. Kathy Hunter Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“It was busy enough that it was hard to get on the radio,” Blankers said.

He said internet service was spotty, so the computers that many fire vehicles carry couldn’t provide updated information about emergencies.

DeBruin said firefighters drove a Sumas woman who was in labor to St. Joseph hospital mostly as a precaution, because they were unsure if she’d be able to make the trip safely as her labor progressed.

In Lynden, Chief Gary Baar asked several volunteer firefighters to stay at the downtown station until late evening, assisting the career staff.

“It was kind of crazy,” Baar said. “Our crews were all over the place.”

He said firefighters handled some 25 calls in an eight-hour period Friday, far more than normal for the city. He said his crews also coordinated with North Whatcom Fire and Rescue, which serves the rural areas south and west of Lynden.

PSE response

About 10,000 Puget Sound Energy customers were without power in Whatcom County on Saturday morning. Power outages stretched into New Year’s Day as temperatures remained barely around freezing in many areas of lowland Whatcom County.

“Conditions are making it difficult to assess damage and provide estimated restoration times,” PSE officials tweeted Saturday. “Damage is heaviest in northern Whatcom County.”

“Our crews worked through the night to restore power to customers impacted by Friday’s ice storm. As of 7 a.m. (Saturday), approximately 10,000 customers remain without power, down from about 45,000 at the peak,” PSE tweeted.

PSE crews replaced (40) 80-foot poles and 30,000 feet of line – nearly six miles of cable, PSE’s Kim said Tuesday.

PSE’s online outage map, which had been inoperative since Saturday, was working again Tuesday, Kim said. She said she was unsure what caused the problem, but noted it was unrelated to the storm.

Kim said PSE assigned 40 repair crews consisting of two to four people to Whatcom County. In addition, the utility company sent road flaggers, safety specialists and damage assessors, she added.

Gargett said that some 100,000 homes and business were without power in British Columbia at the height of the emergency.

County road crews

Gargett said Whatcom Road crews worked around the clock to place road closure signs and clear fallen trees and branches from roads.

Crews also spread sand on icy roadways.

But in some cases, all that road crews could do was to wait for the storm to end so that PSE workers could assess the damage and begin repairs.

“You can’t just cut up a tree that’s got a (power) line in it,” Gargett said. “You can’t plow ice off a road.”

Agriculture

Dillon Honcoop, spokesman for the agricultural group Save Family Farming, said the damage to agriculture was still being assessed.

“Some dairies had to dump milk because – at least for a time – the milk trucks weren’t able to get to their farm because of lines down, trees down, etcetera.”

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Frozen raspberry canes along Birch Bay-Lynden Road west of Lynden, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. About 500 residents in north Whatcom County remained without power after the weekend ice storm. Philip A. Dwyer pdwyer@bhamherald.com

He said it was too soon to say if the storm had an effect on Whatcom County’s lucrative blueberry and red raspberry industries.

Weather forecast

Temperatures were barely above freezing Tuesday morning under fair skies at Bellingham International Airport. But Abbotsford, B.C., along the border hasn’t seen temperatures above 30 degrees in several days.

Sunny skies are expected Wednesday with a high of 45 in Bellingham. IN Abbotsford, B.C., sunny skies and a high of 41 is forecast.

Rain is expected Thursday, with highs in the mid- to high 40s.

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

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