Valley cleans up after severe storm

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A powerful thunderstorm hit the Flathead Valley on Saturday evening, knocking out power to thousands of homes in the Bigfork area. Power was restored to most homes by Sunday afternoon. (Lisa Cloutier photo)

On Sunday, residents around the Flathead Valley were out with chainsaws, handsaws, blowers and rakes cleaning up broken branches, fallen trees, leaves and other debris after a powerful thunderstorm moved through the Flathead Valley Saturday night.

Thousands of Flathead Electric Cooperative members in the Bigfork area were without power for much of Saturday night into Sunday evening, as linemen hustled to clear downed trees and get the lights back on. Most of the outages were finally restored by 5 p.m. Sunday.

“At our height we had little over 7,000 out, somewhere between 7 and 8 p.m., when all the outages were being reported to our system,” said Flathead Electric Cooperative Public Relations Officer Wendy Ostrom-Price. “We’re still making repairs and there will be residual impacts.”

“Outages were very widespread across our territory — from Libby to the west, and Whitefish to the north, and Bigfork and Many Lakes to the southeast, all the way down to Swan Lake,” she said.

She said the storm impacted the Echo Lake substation, which affected feeder stations, leading to issues concentrated in the Bigfork, Wood’s Bay, Ferndale, Lake Blaine and Swan Lake areas. According to the cooperative, the outages were due to downed trees and storm damage.

A strong thunderstorm warning was posted for the valley Saturday at about 8:30 p.m. The storm packed hail, rain, lightning and wind gusts up to 50 mph.

Fire Departments in Bigfork, Columbia Falls, Creston, Evergreen, Marion, Smith Valley, Somers and Whitefish responded to dozens of calls reporting power line emergencies and grass fires.

“I think every fire department in the valley was out on calls,” said Columbia Falls Fire Department Chief Rick Hagen.

Hagen said one of the calls Columbia Falls firefighters responded to was a tree that fell onto someone’s house and vehicle, taking out the neighbor’s power line. He said that power lines on Jellison Road were sparking and had energized a metal fence, which caused small grass fires.

“Definitely the moisture kept it from spreading too far,” Hagen said.

He said no reports came in of people injured.

On Sunday morning, Rick Griffin didn’t have too much to clean up at the construction site where he is building his house on Mackinaw Loop in Somers. Griffin said the house was in good shape and was grateful that only some tar paper had blown off. In comparison, the wind appeared to have knocked down trusses on an adjacent house also under construction.

“I pulled up the corner and saw that and thought oh my gosh,” Griffin said. “That wind was whipping last night.”

On Crestview Court in Bigfork, Tony and Emily Hallock had been out since 7 a.m., cleaning up the remains of a very tall maple tree that split in three places and fell, hitting another tree. By noon, Tony Hallock had a neat stack of wood and was adding to a pile of branches.

“It was all charred, so we assumed it got hit by lightning,” said Emily Hallock, but she wasn’t sure since they were coming home form Missoula when the storm hit.

Emily Hallock said the fire department cleared the tree where it was blocking the road while they cleaned up the rest.

“It was the biggest tree we had,” Tony Hallock said, guessing the mature maple may have been more than 60 feet tall.

At the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts, producer Jude Thomson was happy to report the internet was working late Sunday morning.

“We had no internet until 45 minutes ago,” Thomson said.

During the storm Saturday, “Catch Me If You Can” was being performed.

“The electricity went out four or five times, but it never stayed out long enough, so we continued the show,” Thomson said. “The show must go on.”

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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