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Saturday, February 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Surprise October snow in Spokane knocks out power, blocks streets, closes schools

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 9, 2019

Juliet Barenti, Linnea Carlson and Mike Barenti, remove fallen tree limbs from the street in front of their homes on the 200 block of West 23rd Avenue on Wednesday, Oct 9, 2019. A snow storm early Wednesday snapped trees across Spokane, blocking streets and cutting power to thousands of homes. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Juliet Barenti, Linnea Carlson and Mike Barenti, remove fallen tree limbs from the street in front of their homes on the 200 block of West 23rd Avenue on Wednesday, Oct 9, 2019. A snow storm early Wednesday snapped trees across Spokane, blocking streets and cutting power to thousands of homes. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Before leaves even turned color, a surprise October snowstorm hit Spokane overnight, snapping branches that cut power to thousands of homes and forcing Spokane Public Schools to declare a snow day.

At the height of the storm, a steady crackle of snapping trees burdened with heavy snow echoed across neighborhoods with towering deciduous trees, sometimes accompanied by a flash of light when a branch took out a power line.

In the morning, residents were out clearing thickets of fallen maple branches from streets, sidewalks and yards across the South Hill. The damage reminded Gene Cory, who’s lived on the South Hill for 33 years, of the aftermath of Spokane’s ice storm of 1996.

“The ice storm wasn’t this bad, the damage at least,” Cory said while clearing branches on Manito Boulevard with several neighbors. “It brought a lot of trees down, but nothing like this.”

Avista Utilities reported 32,234 customers were without power around 2 a.m. and power had been restored for more than 20,000 of them by 11 a.m. The company said it had about 40 teams of two to four people out working on the outages. It could take two days or more to restore power for some customers, Avista said.

Inland Power and Light, meanwhile, reported about 3,400 customers were without power around 8:30 a.m., most in Stevens County.

Spokane Public Schools canceled classes Wednesday, citing power outages and blocked streets. Classes started two hours late in other parts of Spokane County, including the Cheney, Medical Lake, Reardan-Edwall, Nine Mile Falls, Orchard Prairie and Great Northern school districts.

The National Weather Service reported that 3.3 inches of snow fell at the Spokane International Airport by 1 a.m., breaking the daily snowfall record for Oct. 8. (Daily weather measurements are taken at 1 a.m. during daylight saving time.) The previous record for the day was only a trace in 1981.

Meteorologist Steven Van Horn said the airport received 3.6 inches from the time rain turned to snow late Tuesday until about 3 a.m. Wednesday. The heaviest band of snow appeared to track south of Interstate 90 from Spokane into Idaho, he said.

By 7 a.m., Spokane’s street department had received more than 90 reports of downed trees, mostly in southeast Spokane, the city reported in a news release. Street crews, along with crews from the water department and wastewater management, were out most of the night working to clear streets of downed trees on arterials. They continued to focus on those routes Wednesday morning before moving to residential streets.

In some cases, trees were moved to the side of a road to allow traffic to pass and crews will return later to remove the trees. The city focused deicers on hills to mitigate slick conditions.

Crews typically load deicers and prepare the city’s snow plow fleet in October. City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said that work began early this year, after storms were predicted and early snow hit at the end of September.

“We’re about as ready as we could be for an Oct. 9 snow storm,” Feist said.

Plows headed to High Drive and other areas with heavy snowfall, but crews mostly have focused clearing streets with deicer, Feist said.

A group of neighbors gathered near West Ninth Avenue and South Cedar Street swapped stories they’d heard from friends about the damage around Spokane.

Steven Hartling lives in the area and had started clearing trees early Wednesday morning before going to check on the eight rental properties he owns across town.

“One of my tenants called and told me to bring my chain saw,” Hartling said. “I couldn’t think of too many trees to worry about though.”

Spokane police reported about 2 a.m. that numerous streets were blocked by branches and many traffic lights out. At 2:45 a.m. Grand Boulevard on the South Hill appeared impassable with branches covering the street for many blocks. But by 6 a.m. obstacles mostly were cleared.

Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said the fire department received 120 calls for service as the snow began to bring down branches. Firefighters responded to several fires sparked by downed power lines, but as of 3 a.m. all had been put out quickly. Power was out all along the Division-Ruby corridor, he said.

Tree branches also fell throughout Manito Park, forming tangled mounds around the playground area.

As of 3 a.m., Schaeffer said he had not received any reports of significant injuries as a result of the storm. He said people should stay away from downed power lines as well as trees weighed down by snow.

Three teams of firefighters were working to clear branches from streets overnight to keep emergency routes open.

“There’s measurable snow on the ground and trees in the roadway all over the place,” Schaeffer said.

Spokane police warned motorists to treat all intersections with stoplights not working as four-way stops.

“Our No. 1 priority is to first address any public safety hazards that are out there,” said Angel Spell, the city’s urban forester.

While rare, snowfall amounts in October like what fell overnight are not unheard of in the Inland Northwest. Spokane’s record snow for an October day occurred Oct. 22, 1957, when 5.9 inches fell. Tuesday’s official snowfall likely will make it the second snowiest October day on record.

In the 35 years Stoddard Hodgson has lived in Spokane, he’s never seen so much snow this early, he said while helping neighbors clear branches.

“It was like 55 degrees last night. Who expected snow?” Hodgson said. “It’s a freak of nature.”

To report downed trees blocking a roadway citizens can call 311.

Emma Epperly and Chad Sokol contributed to this report.

This story will be updated.

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