Multiple powerlines, a complex network of phone and fiber cables in several counties, and mountain-top communications equipment proved no match for gale-force winds and fast-spreading wildfires last week.
In about 24 hours, the Cold Springs Fire, which started near Omak on Sunday, Sept. 6, burned at least 700 power poles, emergency-communications equipment, and cell phone towers and internet infrastructure throughout Okanogan County.
All 911 service, which relies on the fiber network damaged by the fire and wind, had to be re-routed through Douglas County for about 12 hours last week, said Mike Worden, chief of special operations/communications with the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office.
Power comes into Okanogan County via four major transmission lines, three from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and one from Wells Dam. With the fire raging, BPA de-energized its lines for safety, leaving the Wells Dam line as the sole source of power, PUD Community Relations Coordinator Sheila Corson said. After BPA turned on one line Monday night, Sept. 7, they lost the Wells line, she said.
The powerful winds that spread the Cold Springs Fire on Monday also knocked trees onto the PUD’s fiber network in Cusick in Pend Oreille County, wiping out internet in a large region. The fire burned powerlines and fiber-optic cables near Bridgeport that feed other parts of the system, Corson said.
Virtually all internet in the county — whether supplied by cable or wireless — connects to the PUD’s fiber network at some point. PUD crews rerouted electric and internet lines as quickly as possible, but many areas were still too dangerous early last week, Corson said.
Everyone in Okanogan County lost power at some point on Monday — although not all at once, she said.
In some areas on the Colville Reservation, only 5% of power structures were still standing, and 500 to 700 were damaged, according to an update at a meeting of Okanogan County officials on Friday (Sept. 11).
The PUD’s power was on, but via only one feed, PUD General Manager Steve Taylor said at the meeting. “There are toothpicks holding up the line. It could go black any time,” he said.
Taylor estimated the PUD lost 180 power poles and that restoration would cost $7 million. The utility may need to construct new roads to get to poles in difficult terrain, he said. Parts of the service area could remain without power for a while, he said.
CenturyLink’s infrastructure near Bridgeport was severely damaged on Tuesday, Sept. 8, affecting approximately 2,000 voice and 2,000 internet customers in the Okanogan Valley, CenturyLink Senior Lead Communications Manager Kerry Zimmer said. Connectivity to cell towers was also damaged. Technicians had restored almost all service by Friday morning, with the exception of a few hot spots, she said.
The fire burned through two of Okanogan County’s communications sites, on Jackass Butte and Pitcher Mountain, both near Okanogan. Jackass Butte, a key hub, survived with little damage, even though its cinder-block building, which has a metal roof and some exposed rafters, is vulnerable, Worden said. “We watched it burn through — it was pretty nerve-wracking,” he said.
AT&T’s cell tower on the butte burned to the ground, the PUD’s Taylor said.
The Pitcher Mountain facility was rebuilt in concrete in 2017 with restoration funds obtained after the 2014 Carlton Complex Fire. It survived unscathed even though fire burned all around it, Worden said.
Equipment for phone companies, internet service providers, Okanogan County Public Works, and emergency communications for fire districts and hospitals is housed at the mountain-top sites, and all of that was destroyed, Worden said.
Most equipment at the sites was running on generators last week. Repeaters were rebuilt with spare parts and were operating on Friday, Worden said.
The county reprogrammed some equipment to fill the gap and provide some radio communication with firefighters, although the frequencies were congested, Worden said. “We’re getting fairly good at this, with all the practice,” he said.
Last year, Okanogan County voters approved a sales-tax increase to fund emergency-communications equipment. In October the county plans to issue a call for proposals to assess the needs, design a new system, and acquire new frequencies. Construction will probably begin in 2022, Worden said.