Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? 

Last year's black Christmas in the Wood River Valley

The Perfect Storm. Since Sebastian Junger launched the title from his 1997 bestseller, the cliche has weathered countless incarnations (Google chronicles more than 4,500 uses). But one of its more accurate conventions was tagged to the 2009 Christmas blackout in the Wood River Valley. Snow, ice, fog and a deep freeze were all unwelcome holiday guests, and while visions of sugar plums may have danced somewhere else, residents in Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley had visions of empty chair lifts, exchanging gifts by candlelight, and more than a few emergencies.

Police and firefighters from throughout the region were called in to investigate scores of burglar and fire alarms triggered by a lack of electricity. The outage was blamed for an injury accident, a chimney fire, a case of carbon monoxide poisoning and calls of distress from residents whose oxygen generators wouldn't operate.

Power is supplied to Blaine County by way of two 138,000-volt lines. One is the Midpoint-Wood River line, coming from the southeast. The other, the King-Moonstone line, comes from the southwest. They both merge at Hailey. Going north, only one line serves Ketchum and Sun Valley. A combination of ice, extremely cold temperatures and high power-use knocked out one of the lines about 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve last year. The second line failed less than half an hour later. A couple of car accidents contributed to the situation--one in Hailey took out a pole, and one in Elkhorn knocked out another piece of equipment. Through the night, transformers continued to fail, one by one, because of the cold. By midnight 17,000 homes were in the dark.

Thousands were quickly reminded of how tethered their lives were to their outlets. Televisions, rechargeable phones and, most importantly, heating systems all went silent. Hundreds had filled the Sun Valley Resort for the holidays, but instead of a Christmas card, each guest was greeted with a note slid under the door: "The warmest place to be is in your bed."

Officials with the Blaine County Sheriff's Department said there "were no catastrophes," but a Hailey woman was found unconscious, poisoned from carbon monoxide fumes from a generator. She recuperated in an Idaho Falls hospital. St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center sent emergency crews to dozens of elderly residents in need of oxygen. In Ketchum alone, fire crews responded to 27 emergency response incidents. Previously they averaged about two a night.

Meanwhile, another problem blanketed the valley, literally. Idaho Power tried to survey the power lines by helicopter but fog obstructed their view. Even ground crews were hampered.

"It was so fogged in that crews had to use GPS devices to find the Moonstone Substation," said Stephanie McCurdy, Idaho Power spokesperson. "And these are guys who go there every workday. Mother Nature operates on her own schedule, and we worked around it the best we could."

Meanwhile, Wood River residents and guests were making do: presents exchanged by candlelight and breakfast cooked on barbecue grills. Ski lifts weren't running on a day that traditionally attracts about 5,000. Two new movie screens in Ketchum were blank on one of the biggest movie-going days of the year. And restaurant owners were trying to think of a plan B. Idaho Power crews from as far as Twin Falls worked steadily for the next 24 hours. By the time crews got to the power lines, they discovered that ice was a bigger factor than had first been thought.

"Reports from the field detailed power lines so encased by ice that they were as big around as a soda can," said McCurdy. "And they're normally the diameter of a finger."

As Christmas day progressed, so did the crews' success. The last of the 17,000 affected customers were back online by 1 a.m. on Dec. 26.

As tempers cooled and days passed, Wood River officials revisited a question that had been asked before: Why are there only two transmission lines serving their region?

"Work is proceeding on trying to route a third line," said McCurdy, noting that it's Idaho Power's third attempt to initiate a third route and permit. "At the same time we're investigating the practicality of permitting the existing King-Moonstone line at a higher voltage as a secondary means of increasing reliability into the valley."

But don't expect anything by next Christmas, or the one after.

"The permitting process is very arduous, so timelines are out several years," said McCurdy.

In case of a repeat outage, Idaho Power has a few tips to avoid delays getting power restored:

• Turn off all appliances in use when the power goes out, except for one light.

• Once power has been restored, wait 30 minutes and begin turning appliances back on in 10-minute intervals.

• Unprotected equipment should be unplugged, or the circuit breaker shut off, until power is restored.

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