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Beetle kill trees and strong wind sparked widespread power outages over holiday weekend

Courtesy of Homer Electric Association

Over 6,500 Homer Electric Association members lost power this weekend, amid high winds that ripped through Southcentral Alaska.

But while weather was the main culprit, co-op staff said there was another factor that contributed, too.

“Most of the damage that we saw was caused by beetle kill trees and high wind," said Jeff Jaworski, an operations superintendent with Homer Electric.

Spruce bark beetles have been ravaging Kenai Peninsula trees for years, making them weaker and more prone to falling. Jaworski said those weakened trees can cause outages in multiple places at once.

“It’s not just a factor of a dead tree falling over," he said. "We saw many cases – it was really quite remarkable – where the top of a beetle kill tree would snap. But it gets carried by the wind like a sail. They didn’t just fall down.”

This weekend’s outages came from windstorms that started early New Year’s Day and swept through Southcentral Alaska Saturday and Sunday. All but a handful of outages on the Kenai Peninsula have since been restored.

Brian Brettschneider, a research physical scientist with the National Weather Service Alaska Region, said the Kenai Airport saw winds as high as 59 miles per hour.

“We had a huge area of high pressure along the North Slope, a very strong high pressure," he said. "Then we had low pressure in the Gulf of Alaska, fairly deep."

He said there was a tremendous range of pressure between those two areas. That difference in pressure is what caused the wind. 

“That is literally how all wind is created," he said. "Anywhere on Earth. And the stronger that gradient is between high and low, it’s just going to amplify and supercharge that wind.”

He said that wind is more intense at low elevations.

That’s why the windstorm has hit Palmer and Wasilla so hard. Both are located in the deep Mat-Su Valley, where 90-mile-per-hour winds flipped planes and damaged buildings, according to Alaska Public Media. And while gusts have since relented in parts of the region, like the Kenai Peninsula, they continued to hammer the valley Monday.

Brettschneider said that’s unusual. Weather events of this type are usually more brief.

“As far as the length and the intensity, it’s probably about the fourth or the fifth longest of these events in the last 60 years or so," he said. "So about an every-10-year-or-so recurrence interval.”

Residents in the Mat-Su Valley have been asked to shelter in place or find emergency shelter. The Mat-Su Borough School District canceled school Monday and Tuesday and there were still over 15,000 outages in the valley as of Monday afternoon.

Jaworski said Homer Electric addressed most of its outages within 48 hours. Fewer than 10 members remained without power Monday evening, according to an outage map

“We predicted the storm, we saw it come in, and because of our history here, we know that if winds are going to be a certain strength and a certain direction, historically we’ve had problems," he said. "And so we just got prepared.”

He said the damage was not distributed equally. Homer Electric saw less damage on the southern peninsula, which Jaworsky attributes in part to a beetle kill mitigation effort several years back.

But there are still a lot of freestanding beetle-kill trees in the Kenai-Soldotna area. 

“And that’s where the impact of the storm was," he said.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough and local cities both have asked for funding to address the beetle kill problem on the central peninsula. Forestry experts worry about the risk posed by fallen trees, due to their potential to damage buildings and spark fires. 

Jaworski asked Homer Electric members to be responsive to co-op efforts to remove beetle kill trees on their properties. He said those efforts could pay off for members the next time there’s a storm.

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