It was five-and-a-half days before Maureen Grecht and her husband got power back at their house in Little Qualicum River Village, following a severe windstorm on Dec. 20.
Grecht, who lives on a three-acre property on the back side of Cameron Lake, said she’s never seen anything like the devastation that was brought to her property last Thursday.
“We had extreme gusts here. I’ve never seen anything like that ever, and I’ve seen tornadoes and been in tornadoes before,” Grecht said. “This was incredible. [The wind] changed direction all the time, almost like a whirlwind. It came from one direction and then a few minutes later it swirled around and it came in another direction and it twisted these huge healthy trees like a corkscrew opening a bottle of wine.”
Grecht said the winds were so strong that a chesterfield from their outdoor patio sailed right over a railing and still remains missing.
“There’s no sign of it anywhere,” Grecht said with a laugh. “My husband and I were out trying to batten everything down and we actually had to kneel down and hang out to each other and hang on to trees. All the debris that was flying was wiping us too. I was watching huge planters with trees in them being spun around like tops and then smashed. It was absolutely surreal.”
Grecht said about 15 large trees went down on their property, with one hitting and damaging the roof of their house and another one causing damage to their garage.
“It’s a three-car garage and it has a big hole in the roof and we have tarped that and tried to protect it until everything calms down and we can get that fixed up,” she said.
Grecht and her husband stayed at their home the entire five days without power, working hard to clean up the storm damage.
“We were here protecting our property the whole time, we never stopped working on keeping the house protected and the garage protected,” Grecht said.
The couple had a one-burner camp stove and an outdoor barbecue they used to cook with and a small gas fireplace.
The Grecht’s power was restored on Christmas Eve, but by then it was too late to salvage about $2,000 worth of food.
BC Hydro Crews remained working on restoring power for about 50 customers near Whiskey Creek, as of Dec. 27.
About 40 customers are still without power west of Chatsworth Road, about five customers are without power in the 3900 block of Alberni Highway and about five in the 3700 block of the Alberni Highway. Customers are expected to get power back on by 9 p.m. on Dec. 27.
“Whiskey Creek-Hilliers area was one of the most hard-hit areas on the whole Island. When our crews got there, they said it was total devastation,” said Ted Olynyk, community relations manger with BC Hydro. “We had helicopter crews patrolling and when they came to Whiskey Creek it was unbelievable what they saw. We had a picture of the mountainside and it looked like there was a volcano blast or a tornado went through there and all these trees falling like toothpicks.”
Work in the #WhiskeyCreek / Hilliers area continues as we aim to restore power to these customers by the end of the day. Damage assessments were done by air and a member of our crew captured a photo of the extensive number of fallen tress in the area. #BCStorm pic.twitter.com/m1VOunzYg6— BC Hydro (@bchydro) December 26, 2018
Olynyk said BC Hydro crews had to do a complete system rebuild in the Whiskey Creek area.
“We had to replace power poles, all the lines, everything. It was like starting from square one,” he said. “Considering how much damage was there it’s amazing that they’re able to get [power] on even this fast.”
Olynyk said last Thursday’s storm was one of the worst they company has seen in more than 20 years.
“I remember in 2006 Hilliers was an area that was hit very hard as well, so clearly it’s something with the wind coming from the west coast, it just funnels right down,” Olynyk said.
BC Hydro has restored power to more than 700,000 customers since the storm hit on Thursday, and is expecting to have the remaining 6,500 customers without power restored by Dec. 31.
“If you’re still without power please call us at 1-800-224-9376 we want to make sure we don’t miss anybody,” Olynyk said.
Dale Martin, Mainroad Contracting operations manager, who was servicing Highway 4 post storm, agreed that the stretch of highway between Whiskey Creek and Cameron Lake received the most damage.
Martin said he counted 65 fallen trees the night of the storm.
“There was more than that but what was visible and that we could see was about 65,” he said.
Martin said he believes heavy rains that hit the region recently saturated the ground and caused trees to topple over more easily in the storm.
@mainroadmisland crews are coordinating with @bchydro crews on #Gabriola Island and #BCHwy4 #PortAlberni to restore power and clear trees/debris as quickly and safely as possible. Crews are working around the clock and through the holiday season #GulfIslands @DriveBC_VI @DriveBC pic.twitter.com/fQ4HvdScdO— Mainroad Mid Island Contracting LP (@MainroadMIsland) December 23, 2018
“We will still have cleanup for two-and-a-half to three weeks,” Martin said. “The danger trees have now been brought down… now we’re in the process of removing trees off location.”
Martin said Mainroad is working with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to create a stock pile of fallen trees for future sale.
“They’re sellable lumber…we will take them to the government gravel pits and stock pile them there and they’ll do an assessment,” Martin said.
The Coombs-Hilliers Volunteer Fire Department responed to about 43 calls on Dec. 20, 17 on Dec. 21 and another five on Dec. 22.
“We were very busy on the 20th,” said Coombs-Hilliers Volunteer Fire Department chief Aaron Poirier. “We had assistance from Qualicum Fire Department and Arrowsmith SAR, while working in coordination with BC Hydro, BCAS, RCMP, Mainroad, MOTI and The RDN EOC.”
Poirier said fire members started working at 9:45 a.m. on Dec. 20 and didn’t clear the hall until 11 p.m.
“Our range of calls were reports of people trapped in structures to people trapped in vehicles, hydro issues, lines on vehicles, fire alarms and automatic aid calls,” Poirier said. “At the peak we had five apparatus from Coombs, one apparatus from Qualicum and two helicopters working to respond to calls for service.”
The Qualicum Beach Fire Department had about 13 calls starting at 11:30 a.m. on Dec. 20.
“Five of those calls were from assisting Coombs-Hillers Fire Department,” said Qualicum Fire chief Darryl Kohse. “We sent one engine that spent several hours in Coombs attending calls.”
According to the Nanoose Volunteer Fire Department’s Facebook page, they also had a busy couple of days.
“The first 36 hours was by far the busiest, seeing 42 calls,” reads the Dec. 24 post. “Of that there was a 40-foot boat that caught fire in the engine area, two structure fires, one with significant damage but still livable, the other unfortunately was a total loss. Other calls included four false alarms from automatic alarm systems or smoke/CO detectors and the balance was for hydro related calls…Total calls over the past 72 hours is 52.”
The Parksville Fire Department responded to 15 calls for services on Dec. 20 and 21.
“I think we got lucky not to have more issues. While our crews were busy and we did see some significant power outages, we didn’t see anything like some of our more rural neighbours,” said Parksville fire chief Marc Norris. “Generally more of our electrical infrastructure (in the city) is below ground and properties are smaller, with smaller trees and less trees. The more rural areas took a real beating in terms of the sheer number (volume) of downed power lines and damage, all of which takes time and resources to make the required repairs.”
A warming centre was opened for Parksville Qualicum Beach residents without power following the windstorm.
Set up in the Qualicum Beach Civic Centre, until 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, residents were able to charge their electronic devices, have a warm drink and a light snack and also to fill water containers they could take home. Showers were also made available at the Ravensong pool for those affected by the storm. Buses were also available for those living in regional areas that did not drive.
More than 250 residents used the warming centre, that was hosted by Oceanside Emergency Support Services and Oceanside Emergency Communications Team.