By MARCY STAMPER and ANN McCREARY
The Methow Valley lost power for nine hours Monday (July 15) when a wind-fanned fire burned a pole structure carrying the transmission line over Loup Loup Pass to the valley.
The fire was reported at 12:51 p.m. and burned an estimated 2,000 acres in the vicinity of Smallwood Farms on Highway 20 on the east side of the Loup. The fire was 90 percent contained as of Tuesday morning, said Scott Miller, director of Okanogan County Emergency Management.
Power to the valley and in the Malott area, affecting 6,200 customers, went out at 2:30 p.m. when the burned poles collapsed and wires hit the ground, causing a short that activated a circuit-breaker at the substation, according to Tim DeVries, director of engineering and operations for the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD).
Thirty PUD lineworkers, engineers and other employees worked through the night to replace the burned poles and to monitor the substations from the office, said DeVries.
The damaged H-structure, located in steep terrain near the north B & O Road, was replaced and transmission lines restrung once firefighters declared the area safe for lineworkers, restoring power to most of those affected by 11:30 p.m., said DeVries.
Before that, the PUD shifted some of the load from the Malott substation to adjacent substations, providing power to almost 1,000 customers by 5 p.m., said DeVries. Line crews from Oroville and Brewster, in addition to Okanogan, were called in to work on the repairs.
A total of 5,100 residences and businesses in the Methow – customers of both the PUD and the Okanogan County Electric Co-operative, which is served by the PUD’s main transmission line – had their lights back on at 11:30 p.m. Workers returned power to 200 remaining customers Tuesday midday. They are served by a powerline spur to Malott, where several poles burned, said DeVries.
Rumors of a potentially extended outage in the Methow Valley prompted a rush of shoppers to pick up staples – and other necessities such as basil and ice cream – at local grocery stores. Dozens of people with grocery carts full of water and ice waited in lines at the Winthrop Red Apple Monday afternoon, where an emergency generator was supplying enough power to run cash registers and provide dim lighting.
Hank’s Harvest Foods and Mini Market in Twisp were both up and running, powered by generators and Internet access for credit- and debit-card transactions. Personnel at both locations said it had been busy all day.
“It’s business as usual,” said Amy Perry, scan coordinator at Hank’s Harvest Foods. “It’s always busy when the power goes out, because people can’t go anywhere else.”
Many businesses and restaurants in downtown Twisp and Winthrop closed early, although a few kept the doors open despite dark interiors. In downtown Winthrop, the Tenderfoot and Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe plugged in emergency generators and continued serving customers.
The cause of the fire is under investigation by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Miller said Tuesday. “We think it started in an orchard near Smallwood Farms,” he said.
The fire burned through sagebrush and grass, driven by winds gusting up to 40 miles per hour, he said. Five houses were evacuated and one shed was burned, Miller said. Abut 45 residents in the area were put on notice to be ready to evacuate, but were able to stay in their homes.
A two-mile stretch of Highway 20 was closed Monday from about 2 to 5 p.m.
Fire District 6 from the Methow Valley was called to respond to the fire, along with crews from Okanogan County, DNR, the U.S. Forest Service, the Colville Tribes, and fire districts from Riverside to Brewster. A plane owned by the Colville Tribes and two helicopters from DNR also responded, Miller said.