Wicked windstorm

Sean C. Morgan

A strong wind storm blew across Oregon Sunday afternoon, knocking out power to tens of thousands of residents in the Willamette Valley alone.

The storm, with gusts estimated at up to 65 mph, reached Sweet Home a little before 3 p.m. knocking down branches, wires and trees throughout the area.

At 5:40 p.m., Pacific Power was reporting 63,000 customers were without power. That number reached as high as 74,000. Consumers Power residents along Marks Ridge also were without power, and tens of thousands of PGE customers were without power in other parts of the state.

Pacific Power reported outages in Coos Bay, North Bend, Medford, Roseburg, Albany, Myrtle Point, Cottage Grove, Lebanon and Sweet Home among many areas.

At 9 p.m., Pacific Power reported 46,000 without power. Power returned to parts of the Sweet Home downtown area after 9 p.m. Power was restored throughout the downtown area at about 12:30 a.m. on Monday. At that time, Pacific Power was reporting 30,000 customers were without power and warning that customers should be prepared for up to 24 hours without power.

“We are making good progress and appreciate the patience and safety consciousness we are seeing from customers,” said Bill Eaquinto, vice president of operations, in a statement Sunday night. “At this time, customers who lack power need to prepare for their electricity to be out for up to 24 hours from the time of this news release. This is due to the severity and widespread nature of the damage.”

Transmission, distribution and substation equipment have been impacted and/or damaged and must be repaired in many areas, he said. It is a time-consuming and exacting task to check all of this equipment for safety before restoration can be complete.

To take on the widespread and extensive work necessary to safely restore customers’ electricity, Pacific Power has issued and “all hands” call and is moving multiple crews into southern Oregon and the Willamette Valley from northern California, Pendleton, Hood River, Bend and Portland. Pacific Power has also enlisted contract crews from throughout Oregon and Washington to tackle the task at hand, with safety of crews and customers as a top priority. All types of field personnel are taking on assignments to assist in the effort.

Sweet Home School District 55 schools opened two hours late in Sweet Home Monday, and Holley and Crawfordsville schools were closed all day due to continuing outages.

Emergency workers responded to downed wires, poles and trees around the area. Among them were trees across Liberty Road and another on Pleasant Valley Road. Fourth Avenue was blocked at Main Street by a downed tree. Several trees also fell at Community Chapel, crossing a driveway.

Trees fell on several homes. Among them were trees fallen in the 1500 block of Nandina Street, the 900 block of 13th Avenue, Highway 20, 1341 Poplar St., Sun Lane, 1308 Clark Mill Road and a home owned by Lucas Hufford on Port Drive.

Hufford’s home was heavily damaged when the large tree crashed through the bathroom. Hufford said he was returning from seeing his sister in Bend and wasn’t home at the time.

A volunteer firefighter had a tree punch a hole through the roof of his Highway 228 home near Crawfordsville.

On 13th Avenue, police responded to a report at 3:28 p.m. that a tree standing more than 100 feet tall had split and was leaning, apparently ready to fall at any time. An officer responded and contacted the residents of two threatened homes. The residents of one home evacuated, while the other resident chose to stay.

The tree fell on the house that was evacuated later Sunday night, said Police Chief Bob Burford.

City Finance Director Pat Gray said she saw a van that was hit by a falling tree on Bellinger Scale Road. The van was in a ditch as she passed by.

Harold Mader said he never had so many branches and sticks on his back deck, even more than the February 2002 storm that knocked out power for a week to some homes in the Sweet Home area.

From their vantage point, off Skyline Drive, he and his wife, Linda, could clearly see the storm approach from the southwest.

It looked like a black wall, he said. “All of the sudden the wind hit.”

“Patrols were kept busy responding to multiple hazards, including power lines, trees into houses and weather-related burglar alarm activations,” Burford said. “We think the community was very fortunate that there were apparently no injuries or loss of life. Though the wind was intense. It was short-lived.”

The Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District received its first call at 2:58 p.m., said Fire Chief Mike Beaver. “It snowballed – calls were literally minutes apart.”

Firefighters started responding to downed wires and trees, rolling six pieces of apparatus, Beaver said. During and after the storm, the fire department had 27 weather-related calls, along with three medical calls that weren’t related to the weather.

Firefighters would respond and make sure a wire wasn’t a hazard, said Fire Chief Mike Beaver. Then they would give the closest pole number to the dispatcher to inform Pacific Power.

“What’s amazing is you got to a lot of these things, and people had already cut it out of the road,” Beaver said. Some of those downed trees had wires in them, and firefighters came across a number of live wires.

“That area kind of got some of the strongest winds that came across the valley,” said Tiffani Brown, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Portland. It was a textbook case of a cold front moving in, and that’s not something that happens often in Oregon.

The cold front moved in during the early afternoon, she said, and the Weather Service was expecting strong winds at the coast.

As it crossed the valley, the winds increased speed, generally moving from south by southwest to the north by northeast.

The Eugene Airport recorded a gust at 58 mph, Brown said. A gust of 50 mph was recorded in Cottage Grove.

It’s likely that the wind was moving even faster as it moved into the hills and toward Sweet Home, Brown said. The wind probably reached speeds of 60 mph to 65 mph around Sweet Home.

“It was a pretty quickly moving system, just a frontal band,” Brown said, so the wind storm was short. “You see it typically in the Midwest when a cold front moves through.”

Western Oregon topography normally doesn’t allow that kind of weather, she said. “Our windstorms out here can last hours.”

The wind was caused by convection, she said, as the front moved into warmer air.

The temperature in Eugene had reached 65 degrees, she said. When the front moved through, the temperature dropped into the lower 50s and upper 40s.