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Power Grid Fails, Blackout Affects Millions in West

July 2, 1996

DENVER (AP) _ Power and phone service was knocked out Tuesday for more than two million customers from Canada to the Southwest after a key power line inexplicably failed on a record-hot day.

The blackout snarled traffic, forced hospitals and air-traffic controllers to use emergency measures, darkened flashy casinos and shut off air conditioners as temperatures soared into the 100s in some areas.

Utility officials could not immediately explain what caused the disruption, which involved a 4,500 megawatt line supplying electricity from hydroelectric dams in the Pacific Northwest to 2.2 million homes to the south.

The outage affected parts of Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, according to The Bonneville Power Administration, which oversees the power lines in the Pacific Northwest.

Outages were spotty and some areas were not affected, even within cities that did have blackouts. Customers were without power for just a few minutes in many areas to 90 minutes or more elsewhere.

Telephone service also appeared to be affected in some areas.

About 25 people called radio station KVON-AM in Napa, Calif., to ask what was going on. ``The switchboard was burning up,″ reporter Maxine Carlin said. ``It was so widespread that we just said, `You’re not alone.‴

In Nevada, police in Reno and Sparks reported so many traffic lights went out of service that they ran out of temporary stop signs.

Most hospitals and emergency services were not affected because they have auxiliary power plants. There were no immediate reports of people trapped in elevators. Some banks locked their doors.

At Ketchum, Idaho, customers in Atkinson’s Market just finished up their shopping by the glow of emergency lights.

``I decided not to get ice cream,″ Judy Smooke said.

Neon lights and slot machines briefly went dark in Reno casinos before their generators kicked in.

The outage came on a day when utilities were stretched to their limits, with afternoon temperatures ranging from the 90s to above 100. Salt Lake City had a record high of 102.

Utilities quickly began restoring service. Boise, Idaho, was restored in less than two hours, officials said.

An estimated 500,000 customers were affected in northern and central California, said spokeswoman Mary Rodrigues of Pacific Gas & Electric. But within an hour, that was down to about 75,000 customers, the utility said.

``We do not expect a long outage for these remaining customers,″ said PG&E spokesman Tony Leadwell.

Joe Marshall of Idaho Power Co. said the outage occurred when one of the three main transmission lines connecting the Pacific Northwest with California failed. That forced all the power onto the two remaining lines, which couldn’t handle the load and shut down, he said.

``It was probably overload, or there was some fault, but it would be anybody’s guess what occurred,″ and it could be days before anyone knows for sure, he said.

A BPA official said they don’t yet know whether the high-voltage line caused the blackouts or was knocked off line by a problem elsewhere.

``We’re still trying to figure that out,″ spokesman Perry Gruber said.

The high-voltage line, which was out of service for only 30 minutes, was carrying 4,000 megawatts of power at the time of the break, Gruber said. One megawatt is enough to power 1,000 single family homes for a day.

Gary Donnelly, a spokesman for PacifiCorp in Portland, Ore., said four 500 megawatt coal-fired power plants at Rock Springs, Wyo., also went off-line about 2:30 p.m. MDT in response to the outage. PacifiCorp provides power to seven Western states.

``I would have to say this is big,″ Donnelly said.

Only minimal problems were reported in Los Angeles. Customers in parts of the city had 15-minute power outages, said Southern California Edison spokesman Steve Hansen.

Edison was able to borrow electricity from the Metropolitan Water District, which diverted power from seven of the giant pumps it uses to push water through the Colorado Aqueduct, said MWD spokesman Bob Muir. The pumps were turned back on in about an hour, he said. The district is the major water supplier for the Los Angeles area.