‘That Was Not a Good Feeling’; Behind the Historic Canby Blackout

Canby Utility General Manager Dan Murphy at the most recent City Council meeting provided new details on the destructive ice storm that pummeled the region two weeks ago, shedding light on the events leading to the historic two-day loss of electricity for an entire city of some 20,000 souls.

Canby Utility actually began seeing short interruptions on Thursday, Feb. 11, during the first and far less damaging wave of wintry weather that gave only a small taste of the destruction that was to come.

The utility knew the storm was coming in, Murphy said, and they were carefully monitoring its progress.

Canby Utility began “having problems” at about 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12. The Westcott substation, the larger of the utility’s two substations, was the first to go down, taking Fred Meyer, the industrial park and the eastern half of the city offline.

The Knights Bridge substation went dark soon after. Both outages were due to trees down on Portland General Electric transmission lines that serve the two substations.

Photo by Tyler Francke.

“And, with that, I experienced something for the first time in my career: a power outage that took out 100%, all of our customers,” Murphy said. “Nobody had power whatsoever beginning about 8 o’clock or so, and that was not a good feeling, I’ll tell you, to realize that we’d lost all of our customers.”

From there, conditions only worsened throughout the night, with sheets of misting rain that accumulated into thick, heavy layers of ice on lines and tree limbs — eventually reaping massive damage throughout the Presidents’ Day weekend.

PGE estimated the extra ice added an average of more than 1,000 pounds to each span of line throughout the region.

Numerous poles, crossbars and feeder lines were damaged, including ones delivering power from both Canby Utility substations.

It was also a memorable night for the Canby Fire District and other first responders. The city mobilized a partial emergency operations center Friday night; Canby Fire called back all off-duty personnel and put all three medical crews into service.

Firefighters and emergency medical technicians were working, in some cases, 72- to 96-hour shifts, unable to get a break even for sleep due to unrelenting demand for medical services.

Submitted photo.

“To all of the police, firefighters, Canby Utility workers, dispatchers, Public Works, I can’t say enough about these people,” Fire Chief Jim Davis said. “They worked extremely hard, especially our 911 dispatchers, taking in well over 3,000 calls in a 24-hour period.”

Many of the calls for service reported power outages and lines down (which, you know, join the club, right?), but others were more serious. One building had to be evacuated due to smoke, while six had to be pulled from a Canby apartment complex because of potential carbon monoxide poisoning — which would become a major hazard in the days to come due to widespread use of generators and propane appliances.

“The lesson learned here is we really need to do a better job with public education as far as what to do and not to do with propane burners and generators in side structures,” he said.

One of the most pressing early issues was residents with compressed oxygen devices unable to recharge their batteries. And, of course, emergencies unrelated to the storm continued, including two consecutive cardiac arrests Saturday night, both of whom died.

“At one point on the 13th, we had 29 calls pending,” Davis recalled. “We were literally taking those calls and prioritizing one call after another. We had five or six ambulances lined up at Willamette Falls hospital with patients waiting to go into the emergency room.”

Photo by Jordy Villagomez.

The medical center itself experienced a main break at one point, and all but the most critical patients had to be rerouted elsewhere, Davis said.

While responding to the flood of calls for emergency response, first responders had to deal with their own hazardous circumstances, including falling trees that nearly struck several Canby Fire vehicles — including Chief Davis’s.

Fire and police worked together to clear a blockage on Barnards Road that was affecting emergency response, while both had to contend with a train that stalled on the tracks Friday night — blocking most of Canby’s railroad crossings.

As officials learned in daylight, a major transmission line near Highway 99E and the Molalla Forest Logging Road Trail overpass had fallen and was lying on the train.

“Saturday morning, we found a real mess, with significant damage to our overhead electric lines throughout the city,” Murphy recalled. “We had all hands on deck.”

Photo by Jordy Villagomez.

Although the two substations had not been turned back on by PGE — and could not restore power to customers until that happened — Canby Utility crews swung into action, repairing city infrastructure in preparation for the juice to start flowing again.

“Our goal at that point was to work steady and make all the repairs that we could, while we anxiously awaited power restoration at our substations,” Murphy said. “That’s what had to happen before we could do anything else.”

It was a waiting game, and Canby Utility crews took advantage, getting as much done as they could until PGE could restore power to at least one of their substations.

They hoped, Murphy said, that it would be Westcott, the newest substation, which was — some critics said at the time — “overbuilt” because of expected demand from the industrial park one day. Because of this, though, the substation was designed with more than twice the load capacity of its sister substation on Knights Bridge Road.

“If we were able to get Westcott back on first, then our plan was to shift-load what was normally served at the Knights Bridge substation onto Westcott, in order to get all of the city restored,” Murphy explained.

Photo by Jordy Villagomez.

Luckily, Westcott was the first to come back online, with Canby Utility getting the notification from PGE at approximately 5 p.m. Sunday.

“We were so glad to get that good news, I tell you,” Murphy recalled.

True to Canby Utility engineers’ estimates, the Westcott substation did indeed prove capable of delivering power to virtually all of Canby Utility’s customers inside the city — all by itself.

The small handful, 59 or so households, that remained without power as of 10 p.m. was not because of lack of capacity, but rather, damage on the homeowners’ private property that required extra attention.

The Knights Bridge substation, on the other hand, was not restored until Wednesday.

“If Knights Bridge had come back first, about half the city would have still been without power for several more days,” Murphy said.

Photo by Jordy Villagomez.

Councilor Greg Parker noted the flak that Canby leaders had gotten for building Westcott with extra capacity to handle a fully built-out industrial park — something some residents considered wishful thinking.

“For many years, the funny story about the Westcott substation was that it was ‘grossly overbuilt,’ that it was based upon estimates for usage in the industrial park that some people said would never happen,” he said. “But what do you know? This week, overcapacity really turned out to be a good thing.”

Murphy was effusive in his praise of local partners — including Canby Fire, Police, Public Works and other city leaders — and Canby Utility’s own crews.

“Our field personnel worked long hours and in extreme conditions with dogged determination to ease the discomfort we knew the community was under,” Murphy said. “You know, the very best comes out in utility workers under the worst conditions, and this storm was no exception to that.”

Canby Public Works’ Jerry Nelzen came through in a critical way, Murphy recalled, finding a vendor and clearing a way to the diesel generator powering Canby Utility’s water intake — which had become dangerously low on fuel.

Photo by Tyler Francke.

While the city lost power, internet and even cell service for about two days — Canby Utility customers had running water at all times during the historic storm.

Murphy also thanked PGE, which he said went truly above and beyond to get Canby back online.

“It was obvious to me that they made Canby a priority, that they knew they could make the greatest impact by getting our city up and they actually put us before even their own customers,” he said. “They really came through for us.”

Like other city leaders, Murphy noted how proud he was of Canby and the way the community pulled together to weather yet another crisis.

“We have great people,” he said. “It’s a great community. People really care about each other and they step up for each other. The entire community worked this storm, together. Everybody pulling in the same direction, organizations and people, our neighbors, all of us. It’s humbling to know just how good Canby is.”

Photo by Tyler Clawson.

Chief Davis offered similar sentiments.

“Thank you to the Canby community,” he said, “for pulling together like we always do and putting the city back together again.”

Though he believes the response was largely successful — thanks to the many first responders, line workers and ordinary citizens who went above and beyond the call of duty — Davis said he believes a full multi-agency debrief is in order once the city is past the emergency.

“We can say that this may never happen again but, to me, this is a prelude to preparing for a large-scale event like an earthquake,” he said.

“We’re fortunate that we did not have low temperature like Texas … but I think there’s a lot of lessons we can learn from this if we have another ice storm of this magnitude or even a very large earthquake.”

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