Lifestyle

OFF THE RECORD: Wildlife can be blamed for power outage

If you've lived in the Pacific Northwest for any length of time, you know that power outages are a way of life, no matter what time of year.

I was 11 years old when the Columbus Day Storm hit Washington in 1962. Referred to by many as "the mother of all windstorms," the Oct. 12 storm caused 46 deaths, blew down trees with an estimated 15 million board feet of timber worth $750 million and destroyed $234 million in property. At one point, wind speeds of 150 mph were recorded in Naselle, Pacific County.

It was downright scary.

Although not as severe, a horrible Valentine's Eve windstorm in 1979 caused half the Hood Canal Bridge to sink and left many people powerless on Whidbey for nearly a week. More than a dozen years later, the Inauguration Day Windstorm of 1993 packed a wallop in our state, too. Five people were killed and 750,000 homes were without power.

But power outages during the month of July? You may think not, but that's what happened three weeks ago.

It started out like a typical summer evening, with a late dinner planned. But around 7 o'clock I heard a huge "BOOM!" and the power instantly faded out of every living appliance in our home. Summer windstorm? Nah, somebody must have hit a power pole, causing a transformer to blow.

I raced to the Whidbey Telephone directory and went straight to the Puget Sound Energy listing...the page was well worn from previous visits. I immediately called Puget's 24-Hour Emergency Service Power Outages number (you would think I'd have it memorized after all these years) and punched in the appropriate information.

For the first time since I'd been a volunteer reporter of PSE outages, I received a recording stating that I was the first person to call in the outage. Simply put, it meant that I would soon be connected to a live person! I let out a yelp of excitement at my luck...my family must have thought I'd just won the Lottery.

I described what happened to the friendly PSE person on the line, and he agreed that it sounded like a blown transformer. And with power most likely not to be restored for another hour or two, it looked like our family would be having dinner by candlelight. Fortunately, we switched to cooking with gas a number of years ago.

Several hours later, a PSE truck arrived on Saratoga Road. It was a one-man operation, with the "Whidbey Lineman" doing everything, including answering my questions.

"So what is it, a blown transformer?" I asked.

"Yes, ma'am, it sure was. We should have the power back on in no time," he replied.

"So what caused it? Did somebody hit a power pole?"

"No, ma'am. It was a squirrel," he said. "He's pretty cooked now!"

I tried not to laugh.

At first I thought he was kidding, but it turns out that squirrels in fact cause 13 to 14 percent of Puget Sound Energy's power outages, according to Roger Thompson, spokesman for Puget Sound Energy in Bellevue.

"Small animals can be a significant cause of outages," said Thompson. He quickly added that the rodent-related outages typically affect only one to four customers per incident. But in 2002, PSE reported 1,500 animal related outages in the 11 counties it serves.

That's a lot of dead meat.

So what are they doing about it?

Thompson said that in the past two years PSE has installed tens of thousands of animal guards on glass insulators at the end of the lines.

"It prevents 60 to 70 percent of the outages from happening," said Thompson. With one-quarter million transformers in its system, critter control is an ongoing problem.

Some squirrels create bigger problems than power outages, however. Take the Kitsap County squirrel that was zapped by a transformer, causing its fur to catch fire. Thompson said that when the squirrel landed on the ground, it started a grass fire.

Recently in Portland, Ore., a curious squirrel knocked out power to thousands of Portland General Electric customers when it got too close to a transformer. Several feeder lines were connected to the affected transformer, resulting in 8,600 people without juice in the Rose City.

And this summer in Harrisburg, Penn., there was a massive power outage when a squirrel hopped aboard a transformer, knocking out power to 3,600 people and setting off alarms at area businesses. The squirrelly incident is also suspected of causing a nearby generator fire.

So the next time your house fades to black on a breeze-free evening, don't assume it's yet another distracted cell-phone-talking driver who just plowed into a power pole.

It could be one very overdone squirrel.

Sue Frause can be reached by e-mail at skfrause@whidbey.com.

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