By: Korie Marshall
This is one snowfall that will go down in history.
Nov. 28th-30th saw what many Robson Valley residents consider record-breaking snowfall, and over 20 separate power outages. Some of the power outages lasted as long as 36 hours, due first to the snow and wind storm, then to heavy snow still sitting on trees and. Coupled with temperatures as low as -40 and problems with the McBride generator, many residents were left in precarious situations.
The snow started on Wednesday Nov. 26th, with much of the valley receiving close to a meter of snow over the next 36 hours or so. By Thursday evening, BC Hydros website listed 2641 customers in the Robson Valley without power, and travel advisories for Highways 16 and 5 had semi-trailers crammed all along the frontage roads in Valemount, as well as neighbouring roads, and in some spots along the highways.
By Friday, with the storm abating and clear skies breaking, many residents had still only made a dent in the snow in drives and walks, and another power outage affected residents from Valemount to Crescent Spur. Temperatures dropped overnight to as low as -40, and many residents who still had power or backup sources of heat were offering their homes, B&Bs and cabins to other residents, and even those with backup generators started getting worried because without power to the fueling stations, they couldnt refuel.
There has been an incredible amount of snow in the Robson Valley, said Bob Gammer, Spokesperson for BC Hydro for the McBride area on Friday. Were hearing as much as two feet, and it is wet, heavy snow. He said there were a number of issues, including snow load on the wires, and a broken cross-arm on a pole that damaged equipment. There is also the question of what has happened with the diesel station.
Sources say the McBride generator, which normally provides backup power for most of the village and some surrounding areas, ran out of fuel. Gammer said hed heard that as well, but couldnt confirm it on Friday, and though it was more likely a mechanical issue.
The power outage on Friday affected many residents in Valemount for about an hour, but many more outside the Village for longer. Mary Anne Coules, spokesperson for BC Hydro for the Valemount area said the outage on Nov. 28th was caused by the heavy snowfall which broke across-arm outside the Valemount substation and also damaged a circuit breaker inside the station.
This was a difficult restoration that required our crews to deenergize circuits in order to safety make repairs. In addition, our crews faced difficult road conditions and also had to bring in snow removal equipment in order to access the substation, said Coules on Monday.
Jill Philpott had some unexpected guests at the Beaver Creek Cabins on Thursday night. Students bussed to school in McBride from Crescent Spur werent able to get home on Thursday afternoon because of power lines and poles across the road, so the bus turned around and brought them back to McBride.
One of the amazing things about this story is the principals of the high school and elementary school, says Philpott. I know the kids are their responsibility, but they went way beyond the call of duty. Derrick Shaw, principal of McBride Secondary, plowed the road with his truck so they could get to the cabins, and both he and Kairyn Janecke, principal of McBride Centennial Elementary, made sure the kids had food and stayed with them for the night. Philpott says the students played games in the dark until her power came back on Thursday evening. The studuents had breakfast at the high school Friday morning, and then their bus took them home to Crescent Spur around noon on Friday.
While Philpotts cabins on the east side of Highway 16 and the high school had power restored by Friday morning, some properties nearby still didnt. At 1:00 pm on Friday, Philpott says her neighbour just a few meters away still didnt have power, and from discussions with her neighbours, she understood it had to do with the age of the properties and the phase of power being provided by the generator hers is older and has power, while other new properties nearby do not.
Besides electricity problems, some people throughout the Robson Valley had furnace problems, with the snow sitting on their roofs so thick the wind was blowing down their chimneys to put out pilot lights, or clogging off breathers. Some furnaces still had summer fuel, which started to gel in the nearly -40 temperatures. Joan Nordli says she didnt have heat for a few days, but her house is well insulated, especially with the snow banked against it, and she says her son Dennis did a good job of ensuring her water didnt freeze. Nordli says she doesnt remember this much snow at once in Valemount since the 1970s, though it was quite common to get two feet of snow at a time that decade.
Art Carson agrees the biggest single dump he remembers was in 1973.
I recall there were some loggers working up the Kiwa and their large bulldozer happened to be right at the back end of the valley when the snow hit, so they couldnt get to it to plow the Kiwa road with it! They soon found out that the snowmobiles of those days were no match for that much new soft snow. Carson says he forgets how they finally managed to get up the valley, but they did manage to retrieve the cat and plow the road.
Owen Torgerson wasnt born in 1973, but recalls a big dump of snow in 1985, and snow in July that year. Carson recalls the big dump in 1985 as well, though he says it was fluffy and light, and not so much weight on the ground, though it may have been a bit deeper. He says he took the kids to the school bus the next morning, before McKirdy road has been plowed, and he was the first vehicle to head out Whiskey Fill Road. He had a 4-wheel drive Toyota Tercel, which went through the snow no problem, but he says it was lucky we left early.
It was a slow process getting to the bus because the front of the car was burrowing through the snow, and the snow was coming up the hood and up the windshield, says Carson. I had to keep stopping and shovelling off the windshield so I could see where I was going!
Of course in the mountains there can be a huge difference in average snowfall in a short distance, says Carson. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Hystad brothers had a sawmill camp on the West Rridge bench and I have heard it said that they failed to ever make a profit up there due to the constant battle with the snow every year. I believe it.
Jennifer Hay from Environment Canadas National Severe Weather Media Access Line says weather statistics for Valemount have not been collected since 2004, and the weather stations used in McBride are forestry stations, which dont record precipitation. The closest weather station Environment Canada has records for is Blue River. Over the last 30 years of data, November of 2014 was the third wettest year, with 180.2 mm of precipitation. The wettest was in 1995, with 242 mm. Hay says total snow on ground is measured at the end of each month, and there was 46 cm of snow on the ground at the end of November 2014, the fifth highest on record. The highest was in 1973, with 66 cm.
While Friday was a planned professional development day for areas schools, the Valemount girls basketball tournament was cancelled, as were the many events planned for McBrides annual Festival of Lights and late shopping night, including carolling and the parade. Coach Tim Nusse said after practice on Monday evening that the Valemount basketball team was frustrated and disappointed about the cancelation of their tournament, but agreed to use their emotions in their next game.
Organizers of the McBride Festival of lights say they hope to reschedule, though they hadnt set a date by press time. They said they would be sure to contact Santa to make sure he can come visit at a later date.
Clean up and helping the community
The Village office in Valemount got both compliments and complaints from residents after the snowfall. Corporate Officer Andrew Young says Public Works were down a few bodies, with one away on training and some off sick. Even so, a rough estimate of hours they worked from Wednesday evening when the snow started to Monday morning was 240. Some of the garbage pickup route scheduled for Thursday was delayed until Friday, but many residents saw Mel Hystad digging garbage bins out of snowbanks, often as tall as the bins a task certainly not in the job description.
Superintendent Trevor Pellertier wasnt available to give exact numbers as he was out running equipment on Monday.
There are plenty of stories of community members offering both warm shelter and meals, and help digging out other community members. The library in McBride was open and warm, and offered what some called a port in a storm to residents, some of whom had no power for up to 36 hours at a time, and most of the area experiencing more than one power outage.
Residents shared stories on local Facebook discussion pages, helping to ensure that certain residents were safe and not trapped, and helping to find one elderly woman who left her home in just slippers and a housecoat. Residents in both McBride and Valemount also called other community members for help getting out of their houses some people couldnt even get their doors open because of the snow packed and blown against them.
Power out again Sunday and Monday
Though the actual storm was long over, power was out again on Sunday for an hour and 15 minutes, and out yet again on Monday for 1535 customers in the Valemount and McBride area, though primarily in McBride and outside of Valemount. Bob Gammer says that line crews found no fault during the Sunday outage, though they suspect it was caused by a tree that might have momentarily touched the lines, as many trees are still heavily covered in snow. Power went out again on Monday at about 10:50 am, and at 11:30 Gammer said crews were mobilizing to inspect the system, and the cause of the outage was still under investigation. On top of that, the McBride diesel generator has not started up, and Gammer says its not yet been determined why.
Typically if we dont see that happening (the generator starting up) it means there is either a fault inside the zone that the diesel serves, or there is a problem with the re-closers which isolate the McBride area from the rest of the grid. Gammer explains if those re-closers dont open and stay open, youve got a connection back to Valemount. The diesel units can only carry a specific amount of load, and if the line is open, the diesel cannot support all the customers that want to draw power from it. So the protective equipment for the unit kicks in, and it will not start, in order to protect the system. I would say it is the latter of those two possibilities happening right now, said Gammer during the outage on Monday, though it has not been confirmed by press time.
Coules said BC Hydro has been responding to outages all across the region due to heavy, wet snow, but with the number of customers affected this week, they are making every effort to have power restored as quickly as possible while ensuring the safety of crews and the public.