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Steamboat Springs "Can you tell that's a raccoon? I can't," Jim Chappell joked as he pointed out the animal responsible for blacking out Yampa Valley on Sunday night and causing more than $1 million in damage.
The animal - most likely a raccoon - climbed up to the live wires on a piece of equipment with 12,000 volts running through it.
Power was restored about one hour later to most of the 12,000 to 15,000 customers affected, said Chappell, Yampa Valley Electric Association spokesman.
The animal first caused an arc, which spread into a second arc and ignited two mineral-oil fires. Two, and possibly three, large pieces of the substation were damaged. Estimates of damage still are being calculated, but repairs are expected to total more than $1 million.
Insurance will cover the bulk of the repairs, and customers will not see a change in their rates, Chappell said.
"Have you ever fried a fish and the oil caught fire in the pan? That is what is happening inside. That oil is so hot that it burns out holes and it's spewing the oil out as it's burning," Chappell said.
"I've never seen (damage) of this magnitude."
The initial arcs caused the bright blue-white flashes seen around the valley, and the flaming mineral oil, usually used to cool components, caused the following glow.
"We try really hard to keep critters out, and anybody who could come up with a way to do it could get really rich, because every utility in the country has critter problems," said Paul Vaillancourt, manager of operations and engineering for YVEA.
"We have raccoons, other people have snakes, and some people have fire ants. Everybody has something that gets into their equipment."
A raccoon also caused a small outage May 13, creating a fire in another transformer that is due to be repaired next week.
The most recent explosion also sent a surge through the KBCR radio transmitter, KBCR general manager Brian Harvey said Tuesday.
Because the radio station has no backup power source, the station remained off the air until YVEA power returned. The station's FM band, 96.9, still was operating at low power Tuesday morning until a key component of the transmitter could be replaced. Its 1230 AM station was back to full power immediately after the outage.
To install a backup power source for the radio station would be a "pretty massive system," Harvey said. Both the studio and the transmitter would have to run on generators.
"Our transmitter, our main, is on top of Emerald Mountain. Basically every radio station in the valley is up in that one building and none of us have backup," Harvey said.
Because the Pilot & Today's Internet servers are in Kansas, they remained online during the outage. Steamboatpilot.com still was available to owners of mobile phones and other handheld electronic devices whose phone systems were working. The Pilot & Today's SMS system also sent cell phone text messages about the outage to subscribers of the free alert service.
Pilot & Today Editor Brent Boyer said the service is available to any registered user of the paper's Web site.
"More than anything else, the breaking news alert feature provides an opportunity for us to disseminate important news in a timely, user-friendly format," Boyer said. Readers also can have the alerts sent to their e-mail accounts.
David Hill, director of the Routt County Communications Department, said the dispatch center received 336 calls during the blackout, including 85 calls to the 911 emergency line.
"When we get a huge number of calls, and it did happen a couple of times, it will roll over and ring at the Moffat County dispatch number. If that becomes tied up, people can actually get busy signals for 911," he said.
Hill said people should call 911 only if there is a threat to life or property, or to report a crime.
The non-emergency line at (970) 879-1090 should be used for questions or other issues, he said.
All communications centers and the hospital rely on backup generators or batteries, but Chuck Vale, director of Routt County Office of Emergency Management, said few other government resources have backup power sources.
"We don't have as much backup generation as most people would think, mostly due to cost," he said. "Cost is tied to how many times does this actually occur, and it doesn't happen very often so you don't see a lot of money spent on backup generators."
Vale said families should read the preparedness guide at ready.colorado.gov and ensure their houses have enough supplies to wait out an extended blackout.
"If you don't have power, neither does 7-Eleven, so you can't go buy stuff," he said.
The backup system at Yampa Valley Medical Center operated without problems, said Christine McKelvie, public relations director for the hospital.
"It went very smoothly. The YVEA power source came back to the hospital in about an hour and 10 minutes," she said. "Everything we need to stay functional is on the generator."
The repair for the YVEA substation will take several months, Vaillancourt said, but that should not cause any interruptions to service.
New parts for the substation can take nearly a year to arrive, but Chappell said he hopes the YVEA can repair or rebuild the unit instead of waiting.
Chappell said it was fortunate the damage happened during the summer because power demand is much greater in the winter months.
"If this had happened Thanksgiving weekend, this would have been a major problem," he said, noting the demand during the winter is three times greater than demand in the summer. In that case, a mobile substation would be brought in to temporarily provide power.