Power went out across Sitka for two hours today (12-16-16), shutting off the stoplight at the downtown intersection. The Electric Department says the fault occurred when the 69 kV transmission line tripped on a phase to ground overcurrent. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

The power went out across Sitka for nearly two hours today (12-16-16). The cause? A tripped wire, possibly from a bird collision. KCAW went out in the street to see how Sitkans were coping with the darkness, waiting for the circuits to come back to life.

Downloadable audio.

The power went out across all parts of Sitka from 12:16 p.m to 2:08 p.m. While some of Sitka’s businesses shut their doors, others were in full swing. Like Wintersong Soap Company.

KCAW: Hi, how are you?
Ruth McMasters: Doing great!
Customer: She’s in business here!

Ruth McMaster, who has operated Wintersong for nearly 20 years, is shining her iPhone’s flashlight over the counter to see the customer’s transaction. She also keeps her manual credit card processor out for moments like this. There is, though, one problem.

Ruth: Our only calculator in the store is solar powered.
KCAW: Oh dear
Ruth: We’ve been going out to the window to recharge it every once in awhile.

I leave the store, wander further down Lincoln Street, and find Blake Ricketts standing on the corner. He’s watching Sitka cars navigate the four-way intersection at Lake Street, with the stoplight still out. The rule is to yield to the driver on the right, or whichever car gets to the intersection first. And rule is kind of working. Most cars are just taking turns as best they can. Ricketts says the courtesy reflects life in a small town, as does riding out a power outage.   

Ricketts: Just waiting for the power to come back on. Wait it out. Yeah.
KCAW: Not a big deal?
Ricketts: It’s Christmas time. Be peaceful.

And like a Christmas miracle, the power came back on fully at 2:08 p.m.

Utility Director Bryan Bertacchi said the crew traced the fault to the 69 kV line – a key transmission line that runs from the Blue Lake Power House, down Sawmill Creek Road, and into town. That line tripped, which basically means there was too much current going through it and the system shutdown to protect the equipment.

The direct cause is unknown, but a dead bird was spotted shortly after Sitka went dark. “Someone saw a large flash at the roundabout on Lake Street and a dead seagull was found at the bottom of that pole there on Lake Street,” Bertacchi said. “We don’t have any other evidence that that caused the trip, but it certainly could have been the source of that trip.”

Bertacchi added that power also went out for customers north of Granite Creek Road when a diesel generator tripped at 2:54 p.m. Power came back at 2:59 p.m. Bertacchi couldn’t say why the trip occurred.  This is the fourth power outage in Sitka this month. The first was a brief outage along Katlian Street, followed by failed transformer that closed Sitka High School on Monday (12-12-16). And potential bird strikes aside, a huge part of the reason why is because of Sitka’s aging electrical infrastructure.

“That transformer that failed at the high school was literally over 35 years old. The insulator that looks like it was the root cause of the fault by Katlian Street and Halibut Point Road, again, was over 35 years old. There’s a lot of old equipment in our system and we just don’t have the money to replace all of it,” Bertacchi said. 

Which is why the Electric Department is putting the money it does have towards preventing big outages, that would affect large swaths of town for long periods of time. And these small outages? Well, they may keep happening as Sitka’s equipment continues to age. Bertacchi said the Electric Department is stockpiling it’s inventory to make these small-scale repairs when needed and thanks customers for their patience.