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Shawn Vestal: She lost power in the heat wave, but Avista told her the problem was lightning

UPDATED: Fri., July 2, 2021

Christine Wren, 73, shows her homemade swamp cooler on Wednesday in Hillyard.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Christine Wren, 73, shows her homemade swamp cooler on Wednesday in Hillyard. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Like a lot of folks, Christine Wren employs a whole range of tactics to manage the heat in her Hillyard home.

Her house, built in 1948, does not have air conditioning. Wren, 73, bought it five years ago, when she returned to her hometown upon her retirement from working for the Renton School District as a computer technician.

Her chief weapon against the heat is a sturdy box fan. At night, she opens windows and puts it on to encourage air to flow through the house. During the day, she shuts the house down, and employs a trick her mom used – placing a pan of ice water in front of the fan to “make my own swamp cooler.”

When it gets really hot, she goes downstairs.

“You go down and it gets cooler,” she said. “You go upstairs to go to hell in my house.”

All of this will sound familiar to anyone who lives in an older home, who lacks air conditioning, or who performs the elaborate rituals – upstairs-downstairs, managing the air flow, blocking out the sun – to get through hot days.

On Monday, Wren and a friend, who had come to visit to celebrate Wren’s birthday, were playing cribbage in the afternoon, as the temperatures climbed toward 107.

“It was real warm,” she said, “but we had the fan.”

Right up until they didn’t.

The fan stopped spinning around 1:45. Wondering what had happened, Wren reached out to Avista. After some hoop-jumping, she wound up talking to a representative who, she said, told her the outage had been caused by … lightning.

“I asked her again: ‘Are you sure?’ ” Wren said. “And she assured me, ‘Yes, it was lightning.’

“I started laughing.”

When she saw the news the following day that the utility had to initiate shutdowns to prevent more widespread system failures she went from disbelief to anger.

“I would have preferred the ‘I do not know’ response rather than a bold-face lie,” she wrote in a message describing her experience.

Avista acknowledged the miscommunication on Wednesday, saying that customer service representatives were relying on a mapping outage system that had not yet been updated to include heat as a cause.

Customer service representatives were relying on a system based on past outages, the utility said. When customers called, representatives consulted the outage map, which indicated the cause was weather. Of the subcategories under weather, the system only displayed the options of wind, ice and snow, and lightning.

“This was likely the reason the (representative) shared this with a customer,” Avista spokeswoman Casey Fielder said in a written message.

She said Avista is updating its system to included heat-related causes.

“We understand that this is not an ideal or helpful situation for our customers and employees when the information we share isn’t accurate,” she said. “We’re continuing to improve our processes so we can provide our customers with the information that they want and need.”

Wren was one of some 9,000 Avista customers who lost power suddenly and without warning on Monday, in some of the hottest hours of this historic heat wave. The outages, which Avista says it was forced to implement to protect an overloaded power system, were followed by a slow and confusing public response from the utility.

Particularly in those first hours, many customers were left hanging, without power and without an explanation. Avista issued public statements later Monday afternoon, but the fact that the outages resulted from Avista shutting down power to prevent system failures was slow to dribble into view.

All of this occurred without even a whisper of a warning that such outages were even a remote possibility, and following assurances from various power-grid officials only weeks earlier that such outages would not occur.

It was Monday night after 8 p.m., several hours after the outages, when an Avista official addressed the public and answered questions.

It wasn’t until around 9 that Wren’s power came back on. Her afternoon had been a hot one indeed.

“I could have cooked eggs on the hardwood floor,” she joked. “It was way, way, way too hot.”

When Wren’s power went out, she reached out to Avista right away. The utility was, naturally, overwhelmed with calls, and it took her a while to get on the phone with a representative, at around 2:30 p.m.

She was told that the outage had been caused by lightning – “when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky anywhere,” Wren said – and that crews had not yet been dispatched to fix the problem, she said. Her power would be back on by 4:30, or she would receive a call back updating her on the situation, she said.

“Four-thirty came and went,” she said. No phone call. No power. Five came and went. No phone call. No power. That went on until a little after 9 p.m.

That’s when her power came on.

It was Tuesday morning when she saw Avista’s explanation for the outages in news reports. It was also Tuesday morning when she, like many other customers in town, received a notice that she would lose power at some point that day between 1 and 8 p.m.

She is not riled at Avista over the inconvenience of losing power. She understands that, if power usage is overloading equipment, the utility needs to manage that problem. She’s not peeved, necessarily, that there wasn’t a warning beforehand.

But to have the outage blamed on lightning, when it was actually an intentional outage, infuriated her.

“I was upset, yes, but the lightning comment upset me more than anything else,” she said.

On Wednesday, I published a column criticizing Avista for its communications response to the blackouts. I had left messages with the utility seeking comment on Tuesday, but thought those messages were not answered.

In fact, an Avista representative did return my call, and left me a message offering to arrange an interview. I discovered this message Thursday morning, and am unsure how I overlooked it, beyond the fact that I was making and receiving many calls that afternoon. To the degree that my criticisms were based, in part, on Avista’s failure to explain itself better, this oversight was significant. My apologies to Avista and to readers.

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