Blame it on winds

March's howl disrupts hum of routine life

Posted: Friday, March 14, 2003

Trees fell. Lights went out. Heat went off. Internet service was disrupted. Planes were diverted. A wildfire still burned.

And Kenai Peninsula residents wished for a return to the warmth that marked most of the winter.

Blustery March winds continued to blow throughout Southcentral Alaska Thursday, whipping up problems in all directions. A National Weather Service forecast Thursday called for 20- to 30-mph winds with gusts of up to 45 mph for today. Winds were not expected to diminish before tonight.

The high winds played havoc with power lines throughout Wednesday and Thursday, causing several power outages across the Kenai Peninsula. The worst electrical problems occurred in the North Kenai area and in small communities on the southern side of Kachemak Bay, where many residents remained without power as of 3 p.m. Thursday afternoon, according to Homer Electric Association spokesperson Joe Gallagher.

A wildfire that erupted Wednesday near Anchor Point was still burning Thursday as continuing high winds thwarted efforts to extinguish the blaze, a state Division of Forestry spokesperson said.

By mid-afternoon Thursday, the fire had consumed about 100 acres east of the Sterling Highway and north of Cottonfield Avenue about 5 miles northeast of Anchor Point, according to Kris Eriksen, information officer with the division. The exact number of acres was not available.

The blustery conditions also caused power problems with ACS Internet service on the Kenai Peninsula and customers lost Internet service for much of Thursday. A power failure at the Seascape Microwave site on the peninsula was the cause. Service was restored about 5 p.m. Thursday.

High winds forced the evacuation of the control tower and closure of Anchorage International Airport late Wednesday. The airport opened again around noon Thursday, but not before several flights were diverted to other Alaska airfields. One Alaska Airlines flight, a Boeing 737 with about 100 people on board, was diverted to Kenai, according to Kenai Airport Manager Rebecca Cronkhite.

The Alaska Airlines 737 diverted to Kenai Airport on late Wednesday was due to be refueled and ferried empty back to Anchorage on Thursday, according to Cronkhite.

Passengers disembarked after it was determined Anchorage International was not going to reopen because of the winds. Some stayed in hotels in the Kenai area. About 40 had been bused to Anchorage by late morning Thursday. Passengers were unable to simply reboard the 737 for the flight to Anchorage, because the Kenai airport lacks the security protocols required by the Transportation Security Administration that are necessary to board passengers who would later enter secured areas of Anchorage International Airport, Cronkhite said.

The remaining passengers and their luggage would either be bused to Anchorage or might fly on Era Aviation flights that were expected to begin flying Thursday afternoon, she said.

Electrical outages had HEA crews working all night, and residents of some areas were being notified they could be without power into Friday, HEA's Gallagher said Thursday morning.

"The hardest hit area is in North Kenai," he said. "They really experienced the most damage -- trees in the lines, damaged transformers, broken poles, lines on the road. The hardest hit there were South Miller Loop, Halbouty Road and Wik Road."

Power could not be restored to some areas because of the sheer amount of damage, Gallagher said. As soon as HEA crews made one repair, other damages would be reported.

"The wind was just steady. It did not let up at all. It was an uphill battle all night long," he said.

The utility was to bring in contract crews from Anchorage to help restore power, but as of Thursday, it appeared some areas would remain without power into today.

"We are still looking at another 24 hours or longer before we are completely whole again," he said Thursday morning.

The American Red Cross opened a warming center and shelter at Nikiski High School for those without power.

Power outages affected North Kenai area elementary schools as well.

The electricity at Nikiski Elementary School remained uninterrupted Wednesday and Thursday, but attendance did not.

According to the school, about 25 percent of the kindergarten through sixth-grade students didn't show up for classes Thursday due to power outages and downed lines near their homes.

Just a few miles away at North Star Elementary School, the story was completely different.

The school lost power for several extended periods Wednesday and Thursday, but remained open to serve students.

"We had a lot of parents calling who were without heat. Their kids were frozen," said Kellie Kelso. "School was actually a better place to be."

A generator kept auxiliary lights and heat running at the school, allowing staff to offer a relatively normal day of learning, Kelso said.

The only problem, she said, was figuring out what to do about the school's hot lunch service.

"We thought we were going to have to serve peanut butter and jelly," she laughed, explaining that the power had been out half of the school day Wednesday, then from about 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through around 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

Luckily, she said, electricity returned just before the lunch hour.

By 1 p.m., however, Kelso reported that the power was gone again.

There were scattered minor outages on the southern peninsula. The village of Nanwalek and the community of Halibut Cove were without power Thursday and were likely to remain that way until the high winds subsided enough to allow HEA crews to fly in to affect repairs, Gallagher said.

State firefighters continued battling the Anchor Point fire Thursday morning and more equipment and state personnel were expected to arrive later in the day, according to Sharon Roesch of the forestry division. Elements of the Anchor Point, Homer and Ninilchik fire departments, which had responded to the blaze initially, had been released from service on the fire by late Wednesday, she said.

Roesch said Thursday morning the fire was still being buffeted by a strong north wind. Little had changed by afternoon. Eriksen said that by 2 p.m. the fire was considered 90 percent contained, but conditions remained dangerous. Brush piles and standing dead timber continued to burn within the fire perimeter, but firefighters were staying along the periphery of the fire to prevent spreading, and also because of the danger of falling trees, she said. Through Wednesday night and into Thursday, firefighters battled not only the blaze, but also frigid temperatures that froze valves and water supplies, she said.

Two buildings burned in the Cottonfield Avenue fire. One was an unused shack, the other a summer cabin. Efforts are underway to locate the owner of the cabin, Eriksen said.

Elsewhere near Anchor Point, a contractor aided by units of the Anchor Point Fire Department were monitoring burn piles that had rekindled in the strong winds at Cottonwood Lane.

The high winds resulted in police reports of shingles being ripped from buildings, numerous downed power lines or trees contacting power lines, and trees in the streets. Travelers on the Sterling Highway on Thursday had to contend with dead spruce limbs falling onto the road, ripped by winds off the stalks of beetle-killed trees.

The high winds also led the city of Soldotna to call a halt to street sweeping operations late Thursday morning because of the huge dust clouds it produced.

Jan Jonker, superintendent for Homer's Public Works Department, said that city also had suspended sweeping operations, but mostly because of the cold. Jonker added that the city had had some reports of downed trees, but no damage of a serious nature.

The Alaska State Troopers on the Kenai Peninsula had reported no accidents attributable to the high winds by late Thursday afternoon.

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