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Linemen work from sunrise to sundown

Posted on April 12, 2022 by Maple Creek

Maple Creek continues to recover from Tuesday’s spring snowstorm that wreaked havoc to power lines throughout the region, causing widespread outages. By today (Tuesday) all power should have been restored to SaskPower customers. Water restrictions have also been lifted. Here the News-Times reflects on a week-long drama that galvanised the community.   
Curtis Hansen, pictured, was already in Maple Creek working on a project for Assiniboia’s PMP Powerline Construction when Tuesday’s spring snowstorm struck. 
It soon became clear that his mission had changed. He was now part of a huge army of linemen hastily assembled to restore power to Southwest Saskatchewan.
“It was totally unexpected,” he reflected over dinner at The Salvation Army. “At least I like being in Maple Creek.”
Up to 300 power lines were reportedly down in the region, felled by heavy clumps of snow and gusting winds. The number between Maple Creek and Golden Prairie alone was put at more than 60.  As many as 6,500 SaskPower customers had been left powerless, losing internet, wireless and landline services. Areas affected included Maple Creek, Eastend, Cypress Hills, Fort Walsh, Nekaneet, Hatton, Golden Prairie and Piapot.
Most Maple Creek businesses were forced to close, while Sidney Street School was shut for two days, and Maple Creek Composite for three days.
The community had been brought to a virtual standstill overnight. Only those with generators could function with a semblance of normality.
On Wednesday, the News-Times photographed Hansen working from a PMP bucket truck off the highway, leading to the Trans-Canada junction. Dangling around him was an untidy array of loose wires.
What lay ahead, however, was much worse.
Some poles lay half-buried in the snow, like fallen sentinels. Some were still loosely in the ground, but positioned at grotesque angles. Others had been snapped; what remained was a fragile-looking stump with a splintered edge, the other section lying a few feet away.
One of the linemen said that he had never seen anything like it in the last 10 years.
Local resident, Moneec Frey, said poles had been snapped off power lines like toothpicks. Another lady referred to poles tumbling like dominoes.
The story was the same on other routes out of town.
Off the highway heading to the park, every other pole seemed to be broken or twisted. In a field near Ghostown Blues, poles lay in rows, as if paying obeisance to a spirit that has haunted the area since the early settlers arrived; they complemented the quiet solitude pervading the landscape.
Meanwhile, off Nekaneet Drive, blue and yellow Valard Construction trucks were parked. Nearby, linemen could be seen against the sky, reconnecting Maple Creek and the surrounding area.
Work continued there well into the evenings, truck lights glowing in the dark.
Around East Valley Campground, SaskPower reported roughly four miles of downed power lines and dozens of broken power poles.
It was clear from the outset that this was an outage that would take days, maybe a week or longer, to resolve. Crews from across the region were alerted, although they were hampered initially by high wind speeds and low visibility.
It meant very long work hours, from sunrise to sundown, sometimes later.
Motorists too faced Arctic conditions on Tuesday, with gusts whipping snow across highways. Some vehicles ended in ditches. The highway hotline said travel was not recommended in all directions from Maple Creek.
Despite the personal hardships, the storm ran its course without reports of injuries or major structural damage to properties.
One of the most dramatic incidents involved the fall of two large spruce trees outside Binkley’s Funeral Service at 114 Cypress Street. A section of 1st Avenue between Maple Street and Cypress Street was briefly closed off until a path around the fallen trees could be created for motorists.
The storm first made its mark in the early hours of Tuesday. Winds began picking up and roaring continually through the night. There were reports of lights flickering, and a mini-outage before electricity returned.
Residents awoke to a snow-covered landscape, as if spring had reverted to winter. Thick snowflakes mixed with driving rain, resulting in deep furrows on the roads.
Occasionally, a snowflake would hit a window pane or windshield with the force of hail. Snow slid in clusters from tree branches, striking car roofs like falling rocks.
The lights went out completely between 8.30 and 10.30am. One of the facilities affected was the Water Treatment Plant, which is on a separate grid to the Town. Water use restrictions were put into effect.
As the extent of the emergency became clear, a command centre was established at the Town Office, before being transferred to the new fire hall, which has a generator.
The Town team handling the crisis was headed by Councillor Len Barkman, the deputy mayor. He was in constant contact with Michelle McKenzie, the mayor, who was away at a conference of municipalities in Regina.
A civic emergency was declared and a warming station set up at The Salvation Army at 203 Maple Street; a 25,000-watt generator enabled Majors Ed and Charlotte Dean to cater to all residents’ needs, including food, water, warmth, power to charge phones and somewhere to sleep.
Savannah Mass, communications and tourism manager, wrote a storm update, that was distributed in the form of a flyer to residents on Wednesday, April 6. Bradley Drever, from Skandacor, handled the distribution. Information was also posted on the Town’s Facebook page.
In the update, Mass wrote that the water treatment plant was still without power.
“In the case the Town’s power is restored, residents will still be required to follow the water restriction because the Water Treatment Plant will not be restored at the same time. Thus, the water restriction will remain in effect until further notice.
“The water continues to be safe to consume. Please limit consumption – meaning no showers, baths, dishwasher, laundry, excess toilet flushing, etc.”
The flyer said there was no estimated time of repair for power. Those seeking an update were advised to contact SaskPower by calling 310-2220 or visit their website.
Mass added that the Salvation Army warming station welcomed anyone needing food, water, power for charging devices, and a place to warm up. The Town of Maple Creek handibus was also available for transport at no cost. Contact 306-662-8034.
Finally, there was a propane heat warning.
“Do not use propane heaters indoors. It will produce fatal carbon monoxide.”
For updates, people were told to check the Town’s Facebook page or visit its website at http://www.maplecreek.ca. The following day another flyer went out, reporting that the water treatment plant was still down. Residents were told to keep following water restrictions, although restaurants were exempt, allowing food production to continue.
“At this time, power has been restored to the north side of 5th Avenue in Maple Creek. The south and west of town remains without power.”
Those with generators were warned to ensure exhausts were pointed away from their homes to avoid expelling fatal amounts of carbon monoxide in enclosed spaces.
Among the businesses that managed to keep going thanks to generators were Cypress Wholesale Foods and Deli at 212 Maple Street and the Hi Kick MC at 43 Pacific Avenue.
Lots of customers flocked to Cypress Wholesale, where they were served hot food.
It was a particularly hectic time for staff as some colleagues were unable to make it in because they live out of town. On Wednesday, the store closed at 4.30pm, saying it was colder inside than outside.
The Hi Kick MC was also regularly packed with customers keen to stock up on supplies.
“I couldn’t believe the number of cars outside on Friday,” said one customer. “They deserve to be praised for staying open.”
Rafter R Brewing Company at 13 Pacific Avenue also stayed open, albeit with shortened hours on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“We don’t have a generator, but power is not needed to serve beer,” said owner Ryan Moncrieff. “We had customers in here enjoying a beer in the cool and semi-dark taproom.”
By Thursday, the company was back to regular hours, 1-8pm.
For many residents, the biggest immediate challenge was staying warm. It is why The Salvation Army proved a saving grace again in a crisis.
One resident in Aspen Street said her house temperature plunged.
Phyllis Henderson, a Salvation Army volunteer, lives at the trailer court on the highway south of town. When the power went out, the inside temperature fell into the mid-40s.
“It was too cold to stay there,” she said, adding that she planned to invest in a generator.
She spent Tuesday evening at someone else’s house, coming into the Salvation Army the next day to help out in the kitchen, glad of the warmth.
Some residents only heard about the Salvation Army “warming station” through people outside the community.
Betty Sullivan was contacted by a friend at CBC radio, while Ryan Becker was texted and phoned by a friend, Kat, from Churchbridge, near Yorkton.
Sullivan was one of two people to attend Diamond C Cowboy Church’s regular Tuesday service. The other one was Eva Keller.
The pair were wrapped up in blankets and sang songs, with the ministers, Ross and Claire Pollock.
Back home that evening, Sullivan was grateful for the warmth generated by her cats.
“My cats were cold and came snuggling up to me,” she said.
The next day, Sullivan met Claire Pollock at The Salvation Army. Both wore extra layers of clothing to keep out the cold.
Laurie Leigh, who runs the Rockin’ Horse with Ralph, said she woke up with no power on Tuesday morning.
“It was very unpleasant.”
It is not the first time she has had to go without power for a long time.
“It sounds like a joke, but a few years ago a beaver chewed through a power pole, leaving the town without power for 28 hours.”
Marlene Anhorn, who lives in at Southview Manor, said the temperature in her apartment remained comfortable during the storm.
She believed there was an upside to the storm: Maple Creek needed moisture. It was a point made by several others interviewed by the News-Times.
Another positive mentioned was the influx of people, such as linemen, needing accommodation, and going to restaurants and other businesses.
At the Nekaneet First Nation, Chief Alvin Francis drove more than 400 kilometres to Saskatoon to buy several $2,000 generators to ensure his community was prepared. The community was put under a state of emergency after the storm cut off power and made a mess of roads. Many elders and some children were moved temporarily to hotels in Medicine Hat.
On Saturday, SaskPower said it had made solid gains on Friday night, restoring service to 145 customers on Nekaneet First Nation and in four Hutterite colonies south of Maple Creek.
More than 650 customers still remained without service overnight, it said, but most of them should have power restored by 10pm on Saturday.
“We want to thank our customers for their continued patience and understanding. We understand that for many, this outage has carried over multiple days and nights, and SaskPower is grateful for everyone’s appreciation of these extraordinary circumstances.
“Our crews are doing everything they can to restore power and everyone’s patience is greatly appreciated.”

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