On July 31st, 2003, the lights went out for 7,500 people living in the North Thompson and Robson Valleys. The McLure wildfire ravaged 20km of transmission line – damaging 112 wooden poles – leaving residents and businesses without power for four to six days and without regular Hydro for more than three weeks. 20 years later, where does the valley stand in terms of resilience during an extended outage?

By Laura Keil

Valemount resident Paul Johnson remembers exactly where he was when he learned about the McLure fire power outage. He was standing in the West Edmonton Mall.

At first he didn’t see the problem – the power frequently went out. But then his son clarified: “They’re saying it’s going to be out for three weeks.”

At the time, their vehicle was filled to the brim with Ikea purchases.

“We went to Home Depot and bought the biggest generator we could find and moved the Ikea purchases to the top of the car,” Johnson recalls. 

For Murray Capstick, the news of an extended outage meant some serious problem solving. As the Valemount Public Works Supervisor, he needed to ensure residents had clean water and could flush their toilets. He and several public works crew worked 26 hours without sleep, commandeering a pumper truck from the fire department in order to pump water uphill from Swift Creek to the reservoir. In addition to drinking water, they needed a store of water for fire protection.

In an Aug 27th 2003 Valley Sentinel Article, Capstick shared his greatest fear.

“Our biggest fear was fire,” said Capstick. “Not so much forest fires but fires from all the generators, barbecues and camp stoves we knew would be running shortly.”

After resolving the water situation, they located a vacuum truck in Hinton that made it to town by 4pm, luckily passing through a road block due to a wildfire near Maligne Lake.

“Apparently they first told him ‘Everybody’s got an emergency, Buddy,'” Capstick said in the 2003 article. “But they soon realized the urgency of the situation and piloted him through.”

Meanwhile along the frontage roads, motorists were limited to gas stations with generators. At the one open gas station in Valemount, hot and tired motorists waited in long line-ups. But a surprise arrived in the form of cold treats from Trevor and Christine Pelletier, who had five garbage bags full of ice cream bars, Dixie cups and freezies left over from a salvage operation the year before when a refrigerator truck crashed south of town. RV owners with functioning freezers got extra big portions.

The gas station attendant Cathy Williams was quoted in an article saying the mood of those in the line-up changed visibly.

“They definitely took a lot of road rage out of the people waiting in line,” she said. “People were so thankful – even a little feature like that, and people cooled off and things started moving a little better.”

McBride’s quick response

In McBride, Mayor Mike Frazier, McBride Council and Regional District Rep Mike Monroe brainstormed solutions to the outage and Fire Chief Dave Hruby set up a 24-hour emergency centre. While Frazier and Monroe and others sought back-up generators, the Village brought in a refrigeration truck for residents to use as a shared freezer, and ordered a village-supply of bottled water. When asked how he was paying, Frazier told them the Province would be footing the bill. In a 2003 article, Frazier said he was careful to quote task numbers from the Provincial Emergency Program so the cost would be covered.

Monroe and Dutch Molendyk tracked down two 2-MW generators at Finning Power in Edmonton, which arrived in Valemount and McBride that weekend. Due to technical issues and a need to survey area power lines, there was a delay in restoring power, but by Monday night power was restored in Valemount and by Wednesday (five days into the outage) power was restored between Crescent Spur and Mt. Robson. Dome Creek waited an extra day due to wind-damaged lines. 

The biggest BBQ ever

At Valemount IGA, Owner Mike Simms recalls driving up from Kamloops where he’d just had his vehicle fixed. The power was already out when he drove through Clearwater. Luckily, a delivery truck was scheduled to arrive around the time of the outage, so after dropping off its goods in McBride, it returned and became a portable cooler for all the perishables in the store.

Simms says there was high demand for five things – ice, candles, batteries, water and matches.

“It was an experience,” he recalls. 

He says things actually went fairly smoothly and they only lost a small amount of food. HY Louie – the parent company of IGA at that time – arranged for a large generator which arrived Friday afternoon, and the store was up and running by Saturday just in time for a fundraiser BBQ.

“I think that was the biggest barbecue we ever had there,” he says. “Even the people that were driving on the highway stopped by because nobody else was open.”

The Shop Easy grocery store across the street wasn’t so lucky – by the time their delivery truck arrived the power had been out for 20 hours, and some food had already spoiled. They had to keep the store closed over the weekend until a generator arrived on Monday, missing out on roughly $35,000 in revenue, plus about $20,000 of spoiled food.

Losing phones, food, and water

Gene Blackman was one of two electrical contractors in the valley at that time, and had his hands full hooking up generators – about 150 of them himself.

“People were starting to lose their food and that was a big issue. Freezers were starting to thaw out.”

He recalls hooking up generators for dairy operations that needed power for milking equipment. He also helped CN hook up generators to each of their signals, so trains could run.

“At the time Jeremy Rose was practicing with me, and we put in long days, long hours, trying to keep things going. And then Jeremy’s father, Roy Rose, had hired him and we had trucks with fuel tanks and he just went around fueling (generator) tanks sort of constantly.”

Most of the small generators ran on gasoline or diesel.

The phone system was another issue. Many people in outlying areas lost their phone connection. Blackman says the problem was the battery backups in each phone power box in each neighbourhood had to be charged separately.

“What happened was as those batteries started dying out, the phone system was sort of collapsing in segments depending on the status of those batteries. And so they sent a fellow from Prince George with a generator, and he got around to these little boxes in his truck all day while he charged a battery backup.”

Blackman suggested bringing spare batteries to his shop and charging them all at once, but was told it was against corporate policy.

Blackman recalls getting into trouble afterwards for hooking up generators to homes, since for it to be safe, he had to pop the seal on the metre and isolate the home so that if the power did come on it wouldn’t blow up the generator and potentially start a fire.

“When it was all said and done, Safety Engineering, which which is what the electrical contractors worked under in BC, came to me and actually they were going to charge me for violations of the rules, which I did of course, but my position was that it was an emergency and I think Shirley Bond and others kind of all went to bat (for me).”

Luckily the charges never proceeded.

After Hydro was restored, Blackman took on a dealership for Generac power systems – propane-fuelled generators – and installed them on a number of homes through the valley.

“I would assume that most of them are probably still running or available,” he says. “They were totally automatic. As soon as the power went off, they switched off from the Hydro and started the generator automatically so whether you’re home or not, they would fire up.”

He warns people not to try connecting a generator to their home on their own.

“You can’t just buy a generator and hook it up to your house; that’ll actually null and void your (home) insurance,” he says. “It has to be hooked up correctly, it has to go through a transfer switch. If you’re hooking in, it could backfeed into the power line and for the hydro crews trying to fix the line, it can be a safety issue.”

A push for stand-alone IPPS

John Wheeler was one of the people working through the night to restore power to the system. He was a technician and designer for the Hystad Creek IPP, and BC Hydro asked him to see whether he could upgrade the IPP to power the grid as an “island.” He tried, but couldn’t get it done in time.

“Because it was never intended to operate that way, it wasn’t capable of operating that way.”

However, after the diesel generators were installed, Wheeler said local IPPs like Hystad did contribute some power to the grid formed by the generators.

After the outage, things changed. Hydro invested in equipment on Hystad that would allow it to island an area. Wheeler says it’s not used as the primary back-up on the system anymore, but it does contribute power when Castle Creek IPP is the back-up.

When Wheeler and his business partners designed the Castle Creek IPP in McBride, Hydro specifically requested that it have the capacity to provide island power to the region. What’s more, the Castle Creek IPP has a relatively stable power supply due to the size of the creek, which means it nearly always operates at a capacity of 7MW.

Wheeler says the smaller IPPs do contribute power when Castle Creek is the back-up, to help stabilize the system on such a long transmission line.

He says there was a week-long outage a few years ago where Castle Creek kept the power going without a hitch.

“Nobody even really knew it because the power never went out.”

The generators installed in McBride in 2010 can also island an area from the Beaver to Lamming Mills. He says the generators are usually used for unintended outages and Castle Creek is used for planned outages

“Overall, this complete system that BC Hydro kind of put together with Castle and everything means that it’s rare that the customers on that substation would be out of power for very long.”

Backup power not automatic when fire risk high

Wheeler says back-up power options are not automatically deployed during high fire risk, such as the present, due to the risk of the line sparking a fire.

Before trying to re-energize the system, Hydro employees must first inspect the line to ensure it doesn’t pose a fire danger.

He says the recent wildfire near Cranbrook was caused by a tree on the line, despite BC Hydro’s precautions. As of July 31st, that fire has burned 4600 hectares.

Village Improvements

Valemount Mayor Owen Torgerson says there have been a number of municipal improvements since the 2003 event.

“We have power redundancies built in, back-up generators to the water intake, the water treatment facility, back-up at a couple of critical lift stations, to the sewage treatment facility and we have a roving generator that we can go from lift station to lift station to lift station.”

This year, they also installed an emergency back-up generator at the Community Hall to use as an evacuation centre if needed.

Torgerson says the Village has put in a request to the Ministry of Energy and Mines to consider connecting the transmission line in Blue River to Mica Dam to add redundancy to the grid. The request was originally made at a meeting a decade ago, but the Village plans to raise the issue again at the Ministry meeting at UBCM in September.

For water, Torgerson says they are also partnering with UNBC around geohazards, particularly the Swift Creek Slide. Pick up the Aug 17th edition of the Goat for our feature story on that issue.

BC Hydro improvements

When contacted for this story, BC Hydro told the Goat it has completed a number of system upgrades to improve reliability for customers in the North Thompson area. 

“We’re in the middle of advancing the North Thompson Asset Plan which has included the replacement of 58 aging structures on the transmission line in 2022,” says Mary Anne Coules, BC Hydro Community Relations. They are planning to replace another 61 aging structures in 2023.

Coules says Hydro also completes regular inspections on the North Thompson transmission line to examine infrastructure and identify areas of vegetation growth or other issues that may cause a risk to this line. 

“A helicopter is used to inspect the transmission line four times a year and crews also patrol the transmission line on an ongoing basis.”

BC Hydro has also done a lot of clearing of trees around power lines. Over the past six years, tree clearing efforts have increased along the transmission line to prevent tree related outages, she says. In both 2021 and 2022, approximately $1 million was spent each year on transmission vegetation management, and they are forecasted to spend another $1.1 million this year.

People’s responses

Blackman recalls people being pretty resilient during the 2003 outage.

“It’s not something you can get mad at, because it was a forest fire that burned the power line down and in order to fix the power line, they had to wait for the fire to subside. People kind of realized that, I think, and I don’t remember people being angry.”

He does remember people getting anxious.

“You know, they were losing food and wondering where their food is going to come from. In a lot of rural places they relied on wells and didn’t have water, because their (electric) pumps weren’t working.”

“The longer it went on, the more anxious people got.”

The situation was worse for those who relied on electric water pumps and those who had a lot of frozen food. Some people also had medicine that needed to be kept cold.

Mitch Moman had just gotten a bison and had packed 2600lb of meat into two deep freezes, meat that he was forced to give away. But he managed to get rid of just about all of it before it went bad.

“And all because a guy threw a cigarette into his own yard,” Moman reflected.

The crisis did bring people together – many gathered for BBQs, to share generators, and to share food and water.

Village of Valemount Mayor Townsend reflected at the time that the inconveniences and struggles were little compared to the people who lost their homes and businesses in the McLure-Barriere area.

“For the rest of us it was a tough inconvenience.”