Storm wreaks havoc

Lightning strikes start fires, bring down power lines

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— Lightning strikes are the suspected cause of a power outage that affected areas from west Steamboat Springs to Milner on Saturday.

Yampa Valley Electric Association spokesman Jim Chappell said he received reports early Saturday evening that lightning struck YVEA's substation near Steamboat Springs Airport.

"We have damaged equipment in the substation," Chappell said. "We have taken the substation completely out of service."

The strike resulted in "brownout" conditions in areas west of the Stock Bridge Transit Center. A brownout occurs when the typical voltage flow is decreased, resulting in a dimming or partial elimination of electricity in certain areas.

Chuck Vale, Routt County's director of emergency management, said the affected area had an 11-mile radius from about 13th Street in downtown Steamboat west to Milner and from Twentymile Road to about Routt County Road 52E. The traffic signals at U.S. Highway 40 and R.C.R. 129 and U.S. Highway 40 and the Stock Bridge Transit Center were out for a couple of hours until power was restored.

There were numerous reports of fires in areas off R.C.R. 129 near the Elk View Estates and along R.C.R. 44 near Diamondback Way. Routt County Sheriff's Office Deputy Ryan Adrian said the fires, which didn't spread because of wet conditions, were the result of downed power lines.

Numerous county residents also reported smoke in their homes, Adrian said.

"When the power lines were going, I think they were surging into the houses, and we had people reporting their smoke detectors going off," he said. "A lot of people were smelling smoke. There were no fires."

"We probably had three or four reports of possible structure fires in the county, and that's what I think people were calling in - power surges and the smoke and the smell afterward."

Vale reported everything "under control" by about 9:45 p.m. Saturday. Vale credited the collaboration of local law enforcement agencies, fire departments, YVEA crews and the Routt County Communications Center with a successful response to the incident.

Vale said firefighters would return this morning to the scenes of reported grass fires to make sure they are completely extinguished.

Adrian said the power failure was unlike anything he'd seen.

"There were fireballs of electricity running down the power lines," he said. "There were explosions. It was big blue balls of fire traveling down the power lines.

"All the power lines were going up in fireballs. It was pretty crazy. I've seen transformers go and kind of spark, but I've never seen big blue balls of fire running down power lines."

Until YVEA repair crews could assess the damage at the airport substation, Chappell said YVEA would continue to use its Brooklyn substation to supply power to the affected areas.

Although historically YVEA has provided some of the best "outages per user, per minute" ratios in the country, it has contended with numerous lightning- and human-caused outages this summer, Chappell said.

"I can tell you this year that we're going to set a record," he said.

Chappell reminded area residents to unplug all appliances and electronic equipment whenever they suspect a low-voltage condition.

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