‘The weather has been twice as cold and customers have used about 75 percent more gas’

Snow begins to fall in Bellingham, more in forecast

Light snow began falling in Bellingham, Washington on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, ahead of a winter storm that forecasters said threatens fierce winds and lowland snow.
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Light snow began falling in Bellingham, Washington on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, ahead of a winter storm that forecasters said threatens fierce winds and lowland snow.

If the unseasonably cold weather persists across Western Washington — and forecasters think that it will — consumers will feel its effects in higher energy costs and in other ways.

Cascade Natural Gas Corp.’s 140,000 customers in Northwest Washington turned their thermostats higher last week when a previously mild winter suddenly reversed course.

“For the first five days of February in the Northwest area of Washington that Cascade serves, the weather has been twice as cold and customers have used about 75 percent more gas compared to last year,” Cascade spokeswoman Laura Lueder said in an email.

The average high temperature in February for Bellingham is 10 degrees below normal, thanks to a weather pattern that’s sending frigid air south from Canada, according to the National Weather Service.

Puget Sound Energy also saw an abnormal spike in energy demand among its 1.1 million electrical customers in Western Washington, said spokesman Andrew Padula.

‘”Usage goes up in the winter months, but especially this week we’ve had more usage,” Padula said in an interview. “As the weather pattern continues, people are going to use more power and they want to heat their homes.”

Padula said when a storm is expected, repair crews are staged at PSE facilities near where the worst weather is forecast but that work often must wait until severe weather subsides and roads are passable.

Cold weather may linger

Long-range forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show a high probability of lower than normal temperatures in Western Washington for at least the next 14 days.

“Temperatures are going to remain cold for the foreseeable future,” meteorologist Reid Wolcott said in a National Weather Service briefing Thursday.

“We may be in this pattern for quite a while. We may see more events over the next one to two weeks that could bring significant snow to the region,” he said.

Things could get as bad as the winter of 2008-2009, Wolcott said.

Emergency planning starts

After the first snowfall of the season last week, emergency officials and others met to plan for a prolonged period of cold and snowy weather, said John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management.

“A lot of the organizations are keeping in close contact so that we are on the same page with regard to storm preparation,” Gargett said. “We’re making sure that we’re aware of each others’ capabilities ahead of time.”

Gargett said that severe weather can affect Whatcom County in myriad ways because of microclimates caused by topography that stretch from Bellingham Bay to Mount Baker.

For example, the ferocious windstorm of Dec. 20, 2018, knocked out power to several thousand Puget Sound Energy customers in Whatcom County — some of them for several days — but a wind-driven tidal surge ripped apart sections of Birch Bay Drive and local residents are still faced with detours.

Severe weather does more than simply create havoc, Gargett said.

“It interrupts our lives,” he said. “Are costs higher during an emergency? Yes they are. Public works was on 36 straight hours. Their budget gets used up,” he said.

Snow-removal costs rise

Public and private agencies are affected as trees fall, power lines topple, pipes freeze and slippery roads cause car crashes.

That’s one reason that the resources of insurance agencies, utility companies, hospitals and fire and police departments are taxed in a weather emergency.

Andy Bowler, supervisor of maintenance and operations for the Whatcom County Public Works Department, said officials plan for foul weather when they set their two-year budgets, but the weather doesn’t always cooperate.

“Our maintenance and operations budget has an emergency fund for extraordinary operations that usually covers any overs for snow fight,” Bowler said in an email. “If it doesn’t , we need to go back to County Council for additional money.”

Bowler estimated that salting and sanding of roads, applying de-icer and plowing snow amounts to a 10-year average of $500,000 for a normal winter.

That doesn’t include overtime costs or other expenses, he said.

In contrast, the county road fund spent about $1 million in the brutal winter of 2017, twice its original budget, he said.

State Department of Transportation officials set their two-year budget with an eye toward NOAA’s long-range forecasts, WSDOT spokeswoman Andrea Petrich said in an email.

“Winter snow and ice removal is the single most expensive maintenance activity, making up 21.5 percent of the statewide maintenance budget,” Petrich said.

“We pay close attention to extended forecasts and budget for winter weather based on that and the average winter,” she said. “We know that some adjustments may need to be made.”

WSDOT budgeted $11.9 million for snow and ice removal in the 2017-2019 spending period for King, Snohomish, Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties, she said.

Human toll

About one-fifth of the 6 million car crashes across the U.S. every year are caused by weather, according to statistics from the Federal Highway Administration that averaged incidents from 2007 to 2016 using National Highway Transportation Safety Administration data.

More than 1,700 people were killed nationwide in crashes blamed on “snow/sleet, icy pavement, and snow/slushy pavement,” according to the Highway Administration.

In addition, more people die as residents struggle to say warm in cold weather.

Heating equipment was blamed for an average 15 percent of fires annually from 2012 to 2016, according to the National Fire Protection Administration.

Those fires caused 490 civilian deaths with monetary damages reaching $1 billion, the NFPA reported.

On Thursday night, as temperatures dipped into the 20s, firefighters fought a fire that killed a Glenhaven man.

Whatcom County fire investigators were focusing on a wood stove or similar heating source as a possible cause.

And every year there are a couple of cold exposure-related deaths among Whatcom County’s homeless population, medical examiner Dr. Gary Goldfogel told The Bellingham Herald in an email last year.

Property, productivity losses

Light rain or snow can reduce average freeway speed by 3 to 13 percent, and cost an estimated 544 million vehicle-hours of delay per year, the Federal Highway Administration said.

The estimated annual cost of weather delays for trucking firms is $2.2 billion to $3.5 billion, the Highway Administration said, citing data from a report by Mitretek Systems.

An inch of snow that fell in New York City on one day in the winter of 2010 cost the city $1 million, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told the website Risk Management Monitor.

Snow, freezing temperatures and strong winds also damage homes and cars, PEMCO insurance spokesman Derek Wing said in an email.

“Depending on the severity of the storm and temperatures, we do typically see an increase in crash-related claims,” Wing said.

Wing said PEMCO doesn’t track damage claims by season, but officials do see a seasonal increase.

“Whenever there’s an extended cold snap, we also typically see a rise in homeowner-related issues such as burst pipes, tree branches coming down and damaging structures and cars, collapsing roofs on carports and awnings, gutters coming down from ice buildup and so on,” Wing said.

Effect on schools

Snow-related costs for school districts are harder to pinpoint, said Dana Smith, communications manager for Bellingham Public Schools.

“For the most part, there aren’t any measurable costs for a snow day,” Smith said in an email. “Most of our certificated and classified staff will work on make-up days once they are scheduled, and our other staff work on year-round contracts.”

She said a snow day that’s not made up could mean a loss in food-service revenue of $17,000 and possible food spoilage.

“Intangibly, though, there is certainly a shift of district resources toward managing the weather situation, which brings with it a human cost, from folks out driving the roads at night or early in the morning, to the increase in phone calls and emails, to helping our families connect with resources,” Smith said.

Robert Mittendorf covers civic issues, weather, traffic and how people are coping with the high cost of housing for The Bellingham Herald. A journalist since 1984, he’s also a volunteer firefighter for South Whatcom Fire Authority.