Lower valley looking at a much longer outage

PUD crews had started replacing power poles on the Loup by Tuesday. Photo by Laurelle Walsh

PUD crews had started replacing power poles on the Loup by Tuesday. Photo by Laurelle Walsh

 

By Marcy Stamper

Electricity for the towns of Twisp and Winthrop and for the majority of the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative’s customers is expected to be restored by the end of this weekend, unless fire conditions along the Loup Loup transmission line change.

The encouraging forecast came in a statement from the co-op issued on Monday (July 21).

Fires burned areas near the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) transmission line on the east side of the Loup Loup summit on Monday, but Dan Boettger, the PUD’s director of regulations and environmental affairs, said he had received no reports of additional damage. The transmission line supplies power to the entire Methow Valley, from Mazama to Pateros.

Many parts of the power grid, like this transformer near Black Canyon, were destroyed by the fire. The most seriously damaged areas were in the lower Methow Valley and in the Chiliwist, where a PUD staffer said the power line had “evaporated.” Photo by Marcy Stamper

Many parts of the power grid, like this transformer near Black Canyon, were destroyed by the fire. The most seriously damaged areas were in the lower Methow Valley and in the Chiliwist, where a PUD staffer said the power line had “evaporated.” Photo by Marcy Stamper

The PUD has 3,600 customers affected by the outage, which occurred Thursday afternoon (July 17) when smoke from the Carlton Complex Fire tripped the system and shut it down, according to David Gottula, general manager for the co-op. There are almost as many on the co-op’s system, all of whom lost power.

The PUD does not have a complete assessment of damage to the power network yet, but areas of Twisp and north of town seem relatively intact, said Boettger. Even once power can be restored to Twisp, the areas outside town are “sketchier,” said Boettger.

Some 80 power poles—parts of 20 separate structures—on the transmission line were damaged by the fire, according to Boettger. The most extensive damage occurred from the intersection of Highway 153 halfway to the Loup Loup summit, although there was also damage further up toward the pass, he said.

Boettger said most of the wire on the main transmission line appeared to be in “pretty good shape” and can still be used, although signals may be weaker.

Most of the co-op’s distribution lines are intact, said Gottula, but those on the Loup and Beaver Creek were badly burned, he said.

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) has been helping to assess the damage to transmission and distribution lines. Crews from the BPA and the Douglas County PUD are also helping rebuild the power lines, said Boettger.

“We would like to bring in more crews but we’re short on materials,” said Boettger. Some line crews are bringing their own poles and equipment, although the PUD needs to be sure they are compatible.

PUD crews are also trying to put together the critical infrastructure in Pateros so that the town can be energized as soon as the transmission line is ready, said Boettger.

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Long wait for lower valley

While the news is encouraging for people in the upper Methow Valley and the towns of Twisp and Pateros, people served by distribution lines in more-remote areas, particularly in the lower valley, could face a prolonged period without electricity. “It will take a long time to do any lines outside the towns—weeks, if not months,” said Boettger.

Boettger did not have a prediction for completing repairs to the main distribution line that runs from Pateros to Twisp, which has sustained serious damage, particularly in the south. Many charred poles were lying on their side, and transformers and insulators were dangling, literally from a thread, just inches above the ground.

All substations appear to be intact, but the PUD’s fiber-optic network and the poles that support it, which supplies internet access to much of the county, also suffered serious damage, said Boettger. Jeff Hardy of Internet service provider Methownet said that Internet service was expected to be restored Tuesday afternoon.

The PUD’s other two transmission lines, from Ophir to Brewster and from Brewster to Pateros, both on the east side of the lower Methow Valley mountains, were more seriously damaged. “The Ophir-Brewster line is almost completely gone,” said Boettger.

Once they repair the main power lines, crews will try to bring power to orchardists so that they can get water to their crops, said Boettger.

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Safety issues

The PUD has to coordinate repair work with current conditions. With the fire still burning east of the Loup summit, the PUD wants to be sure it doesn’t devote labor and materials to rebuilding something that will burn again, said Boettger.

The PUD also will have to contend with numerous safety issues. Fire has been flaring up near where crews are working on the transmission line, and there are also concerns that burned trees could fall on the line.

The PUD is not considering deploying generators to provide power to customers as a bridge until the system can be repaired. “The No. 1 issue is that generators can be dangerous to line workers, firefighters, EMS and neighbors,” because they can direct electricity back into the grid or risk burning a house if they are still connected when the system is re-energized, said Boettger.

Generators also divert resources from rebuilding the main power lines, because technicians have to ensure that no generators are operating when they re-energize the line, said Boettger. “We would rather get power to people as quickly as we can,” he said.

There are no estimates yet of the cost of the damage to the electric grid. Boettger said 500 to 600 poles—each costing thousands of dollars—had been damaged, and that is only a fraction of the total.

Local utilities have explored various options for getting power to their customers as soon as possible. Over the weekend, the co-op was investigating the option of getting generators that could provide power to their customers for a couple of hours a day on a rotating basis, which he has implemented in other areas after hurricane damage.

With the prediction that many households and businesses could get power within the week, that interim fix is no longer under serious consideration.