Friday, December 23, 2011

Valley more prepared for blackouts

County emphasizes reliance on neighbors and backup supplies


By TONY EVANS
Express Staff Writer

A diesel generator was installed next to the Sun Valley Lodge last year. It will supply electricity to the building in case of a power outage like the one that hit the valley on Christmas Eve 2009. Photo by Roland Lane

In many ways, the Wood River Valley is more prepared for a blackout than it was on Christmas Eve 2009, when a power outage left 17,000 Blaine County residents without electricity for up to 24 hours. But if the lights go out again, neighbors should be prepared to rely on backup supplies and one another until the power comes back on.

"It [the blackout] was a big wakeup call, and we have made every effort to respond better," said Blaine County Disaster Services Coordinator Chuck Turner.

"We have to remember to take care of the elderly and infirm and see how they are doing. Churches and other organizations know a lot more now. We can help each other out. It's about looking out for each other."

Turner said Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley have implemented emergency plans that include the use of generators to supply power to keep city halls up and running.

"A lot of generators have been purchased by individuals, businesses and cities," Turner said.

But he cautioned that schools in Ketchum and Hailey that could serve as disaster shelters have not been supplied with generators to power them.

"The Red Cross has worked out shelter arrangements with the School District, but there are no generators except for the Bellevue Elementary School," he said.

In 2009, the Carey School, 45 miles from Ketchum, was considered as a potential emergency shelter since the town was unaffected by the outage, but the power came on before evacuations began.

Turner, who lives outside of Hailey on county land, fired up a 9,000-watt gas-powered generator when the 2009 blackout occurred. It powered his well pump, some lights and his gas fireplace. He said backup generators should be installed by a qualified electrician.

Turner said people living outside towns, with fireplaces and wood stoves, often fared better during the blackout than city dwellers. In some cases, they drained water lines to keep them from freezing and cracking, as they had a generation ago, when an outage could last much longer than 24 hours.

"People learned that cell phone batteries soon died, but that land lines carry enough amperage through the telephone line to work," Turner said.

Hailey Fire Chief Mike Chapman said his emergency response crews learned a few things during the 2009 outage that helped prepare his department for a similar emergency.

The federal government says to prepare [with food, water and supplies] for a 72-hour period, because the feds think they can be anywhere in three days. You really have to plan for a week—that's my opinion," Chapman said.

The Hailey Fire Department responded to numerous fire alarms during the blackout, many of which had been triggered when backup batteries lost their charges.

"We didn't know which ones were real and which ones were false," he said.

Chapman also had to keep automatic sprinklers from triggering in buildings around town because they lost air pressure, which holds back the water.

"We went around town charging up the automatic systems with generators," Chapman said.

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He said he also learned some things at his own house during the blackout.

"The problem with gas-powered furnaces is that they require an electric blower. I learned this first-hand."

Chapman started his generator and plugged it with an extension cord into his gas furnace. But the heat didn't come. He learned later that he had been using an extension cord that was too long, without enough power going to the furnace to power the blower.

"It only got 100 volts, not 120," he said. "If I had used a larger-gauge cord, it would have worked."

Testing equipment such as generators and power lines before they are needed is always a good idea, but generators must be used outside the house or in a well-ventilated area to avoid carbon-monoxide poisoning.

The city of Hailey will run such a test on Tuesday, Jan. 10, cutting power to Hailey City Hall long enough to test a backup generator that the city has owned since 2008. Ketchum and Sun Valley also have backup generators to provide power for basic government services. Last year, Sun Valley Co. installed a large diesel generator that could power the Sun Valley Lodge in case of another power outage.

Yet those most vulnerable during a winter power outage could be urban residents without an alternative heat source.

"My greatest concern is with apartment complexes in Hailey with electric heat," Chapman said. "Many people there don't have extended families that they can move in with."

The best hope, of course, is that another winter outage will be avoided by shoring up the power system that brings electricity into the Wood River Valley.

"We have done quite a bit of work and maintenance on both lines that come into Hailey," said Bowe Hanchey, area manager for Idaho Power. "We patrol the lines twice a year, on the ground and we fly them. But if one line goes down, the other one will load up, [causing possible overloads and outages]."

Hanchey said a planned six-hour outage in September allowed Idaho Power crews to upgrade a single 50-year-old power line that brings electricity to Ketchum.

The crews installed new power poles, cross arms and insulators, which keep the lines from being grounded by objects such as tree limbs.

"We do this to prevent anything unforeseen happening," Hanchey said.

He said a number of causes still exist that could lead to power outages, including lightning, snowstorms, ice fog and vehicles crashing into poles or transformers.

"We cannot guarantee that the power will stay on," he said.

Tony Evans: tevans@mtexpress.com

Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security emergency recommendations:

- For more information on how to be prepared and what to keep in emergency supply kits, visit www.ready.gov.

- Being prepared also includes being informed about local hazards. Sign up for the Idaho State Alert and Warning System at www.isaws.org to receive custom notifications for local weather issues, amber alerts and more.




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