In anticipation of a weekend storm that is expected to blanket Maine with freezing rain and ice, utility companies say they have called for additional assistance from outside the state, in addition to putting their own crews on call.
Gail Rice, spokeswoman for Central Maine Power Co., the state’s largest electricity provider, said more than 200 line workers are on call for this weekend and all will be dispatched if needed. She said Friday that another 60 workers have agreed to come down from Canada as well.
Rice said CMP also has requested assistance from utilities that are part of the North Atlantic Mutual Assistance Group. There are 35 utilities in that consortium, which extends from Atlantic Canada down to Maryland.
Rice said she didn’t know how many requests had been made and that CMP had not gotten any firm commitments by late Friday.
“Utilities need to assess their own needs before they can offer assistance,” she said.
Susan Faloon, spokeswoman for Bangor Hydro Electric Co., which serves most of eastern and northern Maine, said her company employs more than 100 line workers and most will be on standby this weekend. Faloon said Bangor Hydro also would make requests for assistance but she said the company was not ready to say how much help it would ask for.
The weather across Maine will be unstable and filled with mixed precipitation for most of the weekend, with the worst of it likely to take place between Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Forecasters were still unsure Friday exactly how weather patterns would come together, but the consensus seemed to be that heavy snowfall will dominate the northern third of the state, a mix of snow and ice will be more common in the middle third, and sleet and freezing rain will be prevalent along the southern and coastal parts of the state.
“Once it starts, it’s not going to be fun,” said Nikki Becker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service office in Gray.
That middle band of the state, starting near Fryeburg at the New Hampshire border and running northeast toward Waterville, is likely to see the highest accumulation of ice, perhaps as much as a half-inch in some spots. The southern and coastal swath will see some ice, too, but probably not as much. Precipitation that turns to ice once it falls is a relatively uncommon phenomenon that occurs when warm air sits on top of cold surface air. Meteorologists call it “overrunning.”
Ice is always a bigger concern than snow because of the potential damage it can cause to such infrastructure as utility lines.
“It’s very much expected that we’ll have some power outages,” said Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency, which is closely monitoring the weather and coordinating with counties for targeted response as needed.
Utility companies have been watching the storm for the last few days and continued to watch it closely on Friday. Although no one expects the storm to reach the level of the catastrophic ice storm of 1998, or even more recent major ice storms, crews are preparing just in case.
A report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the 1998 storm suggested the biggest problems in Maine were caused by damage to trees in close proximity to electrical transmission lines. In many cases, that led to extended power outages because utility crews could not gain access to power lines until the damaged trees were first removed.
Utility companies say they have since put more emphasis on tree trimming.
CMP has spent $25 million over the last five years to trim trees along its 24,000 transmission miles. That’s a significant increase over CMP’s historical budget for tree trimming and Rice said CMP officials believe the aggressive trimming has led to a 34 percent reduction in tree-related outages.
Bangor Hydro budgeted about $2.3 million for tree trimming in 2013, according to Falloon, and has increased its budget in that area by about $100,000 each year since 2007.
Ice building up on branches and limbs after an ice storm can cause them to bend or break, taking down power lines with them.
Rice said CMP also is more diligent about inspecting and maintaining its lines than it was 15 years ago, which also has reduced the number of outages.
During widespread power outages, utilities will prioritize the repairs.
“The first priority is to get power back to critical facilities like hospitals,” Rice said. “Then, it’s major substations that serve large numbers of customers. Then, we’ll move on to branch lines and individual lines.”
Memories of the devastating 1998 storm are still sharp for many, but some Maine residents say they are better prepared for a similar storm today.
That storm left 600,000 Mainers without power for days, more than 400,000 of them for at least a week or more. More than 10,000 households lost phone service, and the estimated cost of the storm’s damage was more than $320 million.
Suzanne Umland remembers being without power for days at her Yarmouth home.
“Our son was home from college and his sole job during the break was to keep the fire going,” Umland said with a laugh Thursday, as she rang a bell in Portland for the Salvation Army’s red kettle campaign.
She said that disaster was more difficult because of a lack of communication before smartphones, and the days it took to restore power.
“It was like camping indoors,” said Umland. The family lost power for five days, got it back for a few days, then lost it again for two more days, she said.
Paul Clark of Portland was a volunteer for the Red Cross during the storm, trying to coordinate supplies to far-flung towns in need. Neighbors pulled together to help each other out, borrowing chain saws and gathering in homes that had wood-fired stoves.
Clark remembers going into one neighborhood and heading straight for the house with smoke coming out the chimney.
“I go in there and there’s a crowd of people in there like a bus terminal,” he said. “They’re having fun, doing board games, talking.”
Staff Writer Noel K. Gallgaher contributed to this story.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @PPHEricRussell