Violent storm socks Fairbanks

Posted: Sunday, July 21, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- When the rain started pouring during a rush-hour squall Thursday, Debbie O'Leary hurried home to close the windows on her mobile home. Once there, a 100-foot white spruce and five other trees nearly closed in on her.

''Trees are falling on me!'' she told a 911 dispatcher and her husband simultaneously on her cell phone and her house phone as she searched for a way out.

The thunderstorm, with wind gusts up to 39 mph, pelted Fairbanks with heavy rain, lightning and pea-size hail, knocking down trees and power lines.

O'Leary's mobile home is in Gold Rush Estates Mobile Home Park.

When she reached her home, she closed her windows and decided to watch the storm from her screened porch.

She saw the wind knock down a huge spruce growing in the front yard. It hit a travel trailer parked a few feet from where she was sitting.

O'Leary fled the porch and went inside, crossing a small deck.

''I had just walked in and another tree fell and took the deck with it,'' she said.

She watched from her living room window as another tree crushed a roof section over the screened porch.

Within seconds, three more trees fell, this time on the mobile home. Two dented the metal roof of a small bedroom and another crushed a corner. That's when she started making phone calls.

Neighbors tried to get the crying woman out before help arrived.

''I heard the cracking and looked out the window,'' said neighbor Jackie Whitt. ''It was like taking a two-by-four and breaking it across your knee.''

Jim O'Leary arrived within minutes and coaxed his wife out of the living room window.

Public safety officials with the help of Golden Valley Electric Association crews responded not only to O'Leary's call but also to another woman and her baby trapped inside a home a few blocks away. The second woman was not identified.

Fallen trees blocked the home's main entrance and broken power lines arced on its metal roof, said Phil Rounds, University Fire Department battalion chief.

Up to 1.5 inches of rain fell in the hills north of Fairbanks town, while only two-tenths of an inch of rain fell at Fairbanks International Airport.

Marvin Percha, National Weather Service meteorologist, described the hourlong storm, beginning about 4:45 p.m., as a small and compact system that originated in Southeast Alaska over the Gulf of Alaska.

''The worst of the storm went to the north of the downtown area, along Farmers Loop,'' Percha said. ''These storms can form anywhere and they last an hour or so and collapse and die.''

Golden Valley Electric spokeswoman Corrine Bradish said the storm caused several power outages around town. All available crews were sent to respond.

The Ester Volunteer Fire Department responded to five calls in 90 minutes, said Kyle Carrington, assistant fire chief.

''Each and every one was a tree or power line call,'' Carrington said. ''Some had smoke and flames and some had nothing visible but the possibility of live electrical wires.

''This happens every year or so when a big windstorm flies through. The spruce and birch are so small and so tall that the wind just topples them.''

After rescuing occupants of the two structures damaged by fallen trees, the University Fire Department responded to four other fire and power line calls.

''These things are scary,'' Rounds said of the downed power lines. ''They can energize the ground for as much as 150 feet around it, especially if the ground is wet.''

The storm retreated as rapidly as it approached. Less than 60 minutes after the rain started, sunshine and blue skies prevailed over Fairbanks.

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