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Winds howl out of the Fraser River Valley, leaving Bellingham with a wind chill of 5

As many as 10,000 electrical customers were without power Saturday afternoon as fierce winds battered northern Whatcom County in the wake of a snowstorm that struck with varying intensity across the entire Puget Sound region.

Several fires early Saturday were linked to high wind and downed or arcing power lines — including a grass fire, a porch fire that spread to a house, and four adjacent buildings that burned on Pole Road, said John Gargett, deputy director of the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Division of Emergency Management.

“When (firefighters) got there, there were arcing wires on top of the structure,” Gargett said in an interview.

No injuries were reported, said Whatcom County fire investigator Mitch Nolze.

Preliminary investigations showed that downed power lines likely caused a 5-acre brush fire on Red River near Slater Road, and also caused a fire that destroyed two mobile homes, a shed and a small cabin in the 1700 block of Pole Road near Everson.

Nolze said live power lines hampered firefighters’ early efforts in Everson.

A hay barn fire on Loomis Trail was cause by arcing power lines, Nolze said.

And a fire that damaged a 1900s-era home might have been caused by wind that blew a smoldering cigarette butt into combustible material, he said.

“Three of the four were likely power-line caused and the fourth was likely caused by wind,” Nolze said.

Red Cross officials were helping several people who were displaced by the fires, he said.

Gargett said Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws had made an emergency proclamation, which authorizes overtime and other expenses outside the normal approval process.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also issued a statewide emergency declaration, he said.

Northeast winds were howling at 30 to 40 mph from the Fraser River Valley of British Columbia and gusting to about 60 mph, according to National Weather Service readings at Bellingham International Airport.

Temperatures were around 25 degrees with a wind chill of 9 at noon Saturday.

Winds were higher in the North Cascades, with Newhalem reporting a 98-mph gust and sustained winds from 60 to 75 mph, Gargett said.

Other portions of Whatcom County, such as Sudden Valley, were seeing little to no wind.

Randy Small, who maintains the Whatcom County Weather pages on Facebook and Twitter, said winds were blowing dirt and debris from farmland north of Lynden.

“Very dusty in Lynden,” Small said in a Facebook Live post. “It kind of reminds me of a smoke cloud in summertime.”

Strong winds with temperatures in the teens were forecast for Bellingham and northern Whatcom County on Saturday night.

Environment Canada was reporting similar conditions at Abbotsford, B.C., north of Lynden and Sumas, and the weather agency warned of the potential for frostbite with prolonged exposure.

A high-wind warning remained in effect for Whatcom County until 4 a.m. Sunday.

Winds were expected to ease Sunday to 20 to 30 mph with 40-mph gusts and temperatures in the low 30s.

“Power outages should be expected to continue into Sunday,” Gargett said in an email Saturday. “Winds are hampering crews, but PSE has opened their emergency communications center and are working hard to restore power.”

Largest outages were in the South Fork Valley from Deming south to Acme and east to Maple Falls, Ferndale and Custer, farmland areas north of Lynden, and on Lummi Island and the Lummi Peninsula.

Lynden Safeway reportedly was open but the meat and frozen food sections were without power and closed midday Saturday.

Fire departments and other emergency-services workers were kept busy Saturday with reports of downed power lines and arcing wires, according to the emergency services app Pulse Point.

Land-line phone outages were reported Saturday among Frontier and Century Link customers, according to the Whatcom County 911 page on Facebook, which is maintained by the What-Comm emergency dispatch center.

Mt. Baker Ski Area was operating at full capacity Saturday with about 6 inches of snow in the past 24 hours.

Three flights were canceled at Bellingham airport, according to the Port of Bellingham website, but it wasn’t immediately known if the cancellations were related to weather.

More than 50,000 Puget Sound Energy customers were without power from Whatcom County to Seattle and the south Puget Sound, areas that also received several inches of snow.

About an inch to two inches of snow fell Friday in Whatcom County, mostly in Bellingham and areas south to the Skagit County line.

Most major streets across Whatcom County were clear and passable, but many rural roads were covered in compact snow and ice after a week of unseasonably cold weather.

Record-breaking cold weather is expected to linger for at least a week or more, meteorologists said, and more snow was in the forecast for next week.

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.
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