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‘The electrical storm was one of the better ones I’ve seen,’ and here was its impact

Here’s a look at the storm that hit Bellingham on Saturday.

Bellingham residents were treated to lightning and thunder this weekend. The storm caused power outages throughout the area on Saturday evening.
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Bellingham residents were treated to lightning and thunder this weekend. The storm caused power outages throughout the area on Saturday evening.

Saturday night’s thunderstorm was one of the Northwest’s most spectacular in recent years, causing localized power outages, diverting commercial aircraft and keeping 911 dispatchers, police and firefighters busy.

“The electrical storm was one of the better ones I’ve seen — certainly in my top five,” meteorologist Mike McFarland at the National Weather Service in Seattle told The Bellingham Herald.

McFarland, who’s lived in the area for the better part of 40 years, said the storm started along the Washington-Oregon border and headed north through the Puget Sound region, hugging the Interstate 5 corridor.

Despite its sound and fury, the storm did little extensive damage because it lacked damaging wind and hail, McFarland said.

“By Midwestern standards, it was pretty peaceful, except for the light show,” he said.

About 7,500 Puget Sound Energy customers in Bellingham were without power late Saturday, but most service was restored by early Sunday morning, utility spokeswoman Janet Kim said in an interview.

“There was significant lightning,” that was the cause,” Kim said. “We did have a strike on a high (voltage) line. It caused an overvoltage and burned the switch at the (Old Town) substation.”

Most customers had electricity by 1:30 a.m. Sunday, she said.

PSE replaced nearly 50 transformers that blew and had to repair electrical lines damaged by falling trees and limbs, Kim said.

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Saturday evening's thunderstorm was one of the Northwest’s most spectacular in recent years, causing localized power outages, diverting planes and keeping 911 dispatchers, police and firefighters busy. Rachel Holladay Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Some aircraft took refuge at Bellingham International Airport, said airport director Sunil Harman.

“We received a number of diverted flights to our airport, to either wait out the storm, pick up fuel and give passengers some relief,” Harman told The Herald.

Paul Francis of Seattle said his Alaska Air flight to Seattle landed in Bellingham about 9 p.m. Saturday, just before the storm hit. Passengers left on a charter bus for SeaTac at approximately 11:30 p.m., he said via Twitter.

Harman said six commercial flights were diverted to the Bellingham airport and two flights bound for Bellingham were canceled.

Electricity was knocked out, but the airport remained open using generator power, with airline and rental car personnel available to serve customers.

More than 2,000 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes were recorded Saturday night across Western Washington, McFarland said.

In the Bellingham area alone, approximately 170 cloud-to-ground strikes were recorded in the 11 o’clock hour, and about 450 cloud-to-cloud strokes were recorded.

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Saturday evening's thunderstorm was one of the Northwest’s most spectacular in recent years, causing localized power outages, diverting planes and keeping 911 dispatchers, police and firefighters busy. Rachel Holladay Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Bellingham and Whatcom County firefighters were kept busy responding to fires and reports of fires, lightning strikes and other weather-related emergencies, according to social media posts from the the fire and police departments and the emergency services app Pulse Point.

“A strong thunder and lightning storm passing through Bellingham and Whatcom County this evening has caused multiple power outages and fires,” Bellingham emergency manager Lynn Sterbenz said via email. “First responders are actively fighting fires and dispatchers are receiving multiple calls regarding the storm. Please only call 9-1-1 to report a life-threatening incident or a fire.”

Firefighters responded to several dozen alarms during the height of the storm from 9:30 to 11:30 p.m., Bellingham Fire said on Facebook.

“Our amazing dispatchers and crews remained busy handling dozens of calls during and after the storm. At one point we had over 40 calls in the queue,” the Facebook post said.

Bellingham Fire captain Dave Pethic said lightning and power surges also caused several activated fire alarms.

One structure fire was reported during the storm, but it was unknown if weather was the cause, Pethic said.

On Sunday morning, runners found a tree smoldering off Chuckanut Drive, he said.

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Saturday evening's thunderstorm was one of the Northwest’s most spectacular in recent years, causing localized power outages, diverting planes and keeping 911 dispatchers, police and firefighters busy. Rachel Holladay Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“That was likely due to lightning,” he said.

Approximately a quarter-inch of rain fell during the storm, as measured at the airport.

Other areas of Whatcom County saw approximately a half-inch to three-quarters of an inch of rain, according to data at the online Community Collaborative Rain, Hail and Snow Network.

Laura Clark, director of the Whatcom Humane Society, said the animal shelter took several calls from pet owners whose animals vanished during the storm.

“That always happens when there’s fireworks or thunder,” Clark told The Herald. “We see an increase in animals coming in.”

Clark said many pet owners were having success finding their dogs and cats via social media.

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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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