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Line Workers Lose Ground Danger Of Falling Trees Forces Crews Out Of Some Areas

Thu., Nov. 28, 1996, midnight

Old Man Winter, the never-ending sequel, returned with a heavy, wet vengeance Wednesday, demolishing trees that in turn tore out power lines.

In some ways the snowfall was worse than last week’s ice storm. Temperatures have risen, the ground is getting softer and entire trees, rootball and all, are pitching in to the kilowatt calamity.

North Idaho utility crews lost tremendous ground between midnight Tuesday and midafternoon Wednesday. After working well into the night Tuesday, Washington Water Power and Kootenai Electric Cooperative were down to 1,000 homes without juice. But by 4 p.m. Wednesday the companies had 7,500 homes in the dark and lines falling as fast as they were going up.

Line crews were having to pull out of some areas because so many falling trees made the work too dangerous. A tree clubbed a Kootenai Electric Cooperative truck just as a television news crew asked about the danger of restoring lines among falling trees.

The bottom line: If people didn’t have power Wednesday afternoon, they were going into the holidays cold turkey.

“If you are off at this time, you better be making alternative Thanksgiving arrangements,” said Jay Hopkins, a Washington Water Power spokesman.

Most of the problems are occurring in areas that hadn’t suffered previously. More residents in Spirit Lake, Hauser Lake, Bayview, Athol, Hayden and Hayden Lake joined the darkening ranks.

Customer service clerks at Washington Water Power and Kootenai Electric Cooperative took calls from hundreds of frustrated callers Wednesday.

About 2,000 more calls were logged at WWP’s call center at mid-day than the same time the day before. Many people complained that they had just purchased their Thanksgiving turkey and had no way to cook it.

KEC’s executive secretary, Terry Brown, took a shift at the phones Wednesday afternoon.

“Crews are scattered throughout Kootenai County right now, going from one emergency to another,” she told one caller.

After wishing the customer a nice Thanksgiving, she added, “I hope you have all your baking done.”

Washington Water Power has 50 crews out around the clock. Kootenai Electric has 19 - 11 of them contract crews - similarly trying to restore power.

KEC’s financial analyst, Robert Neil, has been projecting costs because of the outage - in between making lunches for line crews. Although he wouldn’t reveal the results of his analysis, he did say “it’s going to a lot of money. We’re out a lot more than we expected. We thought we might be up by Friday.”

The renewed problems prompted Kootenai County commissioners to extend a disaster declaration. The Panhandle Chapter of the American Red Cross decided against reopening its shelter, but is helping people find a place on a case-by-case basis.

Kootenai County reactivated an emergency operations center late Wednesday. Workers there reported Fernan Lake Road was closed and a fallen tree had blocked three of four lanes along U.S. Highway 95 near Mica Flats.

Falling trees and powerlines also closed East Riverview Drive between Highway 95 and Highland Drive. Dobson Pass, the road that connects Wallace and Prichard in Shoshone County, was closed Wednesday.

“The trees were falling faster than they could get them out of the way,” said Joe Peak, owner of Enaville’s Snakepit restaurant.

A proliferation of automobile accidents temporarily blocked several roads. Still, some people were so eager to keep going that they didn’t let a few dents faze them.

On Fourth of July Pass, one eastbound motorist lost control, spun around, crossed in front of a truck and slammed into the median barrier. After consulting with another motorist, the driver jumped back in his car, spun it around, and slid on toward Coeur d’Alene.

Life is as unhappy farther north in the Panhandle. A fresh batch of heavy, wet snow collapsed roofs, downed hundreds of trees and took out power lines in Bonner County Wednesday.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Road Supervisor Red Riebe. “If we don’t have a tree in the road, we have a downed power line in our way and its keeping us from doing our job.”

The county already has received about 3 feet of snow this week. The mix of rain and snow Wednesday added more weight to already snow-laden trees and buildings, bringing them to the ground.

An airplane hangar in Priest River collapsed, damaging one plane. Smaller outbuildings, barns and sheds crumpled along with part of the American Milling building near downtown Sandpoint.

Workers were in the milling building when part of the roof gave way, but no one was injured, authorities said.

Hundreds of Northern Lights customers were without power Wednesday. Outages, caused mainly by falling trees, stretched from Athol, south of Sandpoint, to Eastport near the Canadian border and into Thompson Falls, Mont.

Northern Lights officials said all its crews were out and would be working over Thanksgiving to restore power.

The weather forecast has little heartening news. The National Weather Service is calling for an “urban flood advisory” in Kootenai County.

Forecasters say heavy rains are expected to melt snow and slush and flood city and county roads. It could cause storm drains to back up and will make driving hazardous.

Bonner, Boundary and Shoshone counties expected up to 4 inches of snow in the valleys and 10 inches in the mountains Wednesday night.

Rains should taper off today and change to snow flurries in Thanksgiving evening.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Ken Olsen Staff writer Staff writers Kevin Keating, Craig Welch and Susan Drumheller contributed to this report.

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