Lightning struck a utility line on the Siletz River estuary crossing early Wednesday morning, sparking a fire, damaging fiber optic cable and disrupting internet and phone services throughout the county for most of the day . The damage forced a local broadband provider to replace its entire river crossing to restore full service.
There were more than 5,200 recorded lightning strikes in the state from Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday morning, mostly in the Willamette Valley and central Oregon, but some as far west as the coast of Lincoln County – something you typically only see a few times a year, and more typically during intense winter storms.
The lightning sparked 124 new wildfires across the state, according to the Portland-based Northwest Interagency Coordination Center, the regional headquarters of the National Interagency Fire Center. The center is the link between the fire management programs of federal fire management agencies, the National Weather Service, and the National Association of State Foresters.
Most of the lightning strikes were accompanied by copious amounts of rain, preventing the ignitions from spreading out of control. The Northwest Interagency Coordination Center said the storms sparked about 100 acres of new fires, and already-scorching wildfires expanded about 350 acres. The largest new wildfire was ignited about 20 miles south of Dayville along the South Fork of the John Day River. Nicknamed the Doghouse Gulch Fire, it quickly expanded to nearly 60 acres.
The majority of lightning in Lincoln County struck in the upper Coast Range to the east, but a map from the Coordinating Center shows up to a dozen west of Siletz, a few miles south of Newport to near the border with Tillamook County. A group of at least four bolts struck in close proximity to Newport.
A strike near the junction of Highway 101 and Highway 229 appears to have been the culprit for Wednesday’s service disruptions.
Many county residents with Astound Broadband subscriptions reported slow or no internet and phone service outages throughout the day Wednesday, as did the City of Newport, which issued the only official news release at this subject, saying she expected service to be restored by 4 p.m. The fire also disrupted the digital broadcast signal of some Portland television stations.
According to an Astound spokesperson, when the utility line owned by Pacific Power was hit and caught fire around 5:30 a.m., it completely shut down video and television services, destroying the fiber optic cable to Astound on and around the electric pole. The company’s redundant systems maintained partial internet connectivity.
Because the fire also affected power lines, Astound crews were unable to access their equipment until 7:30 a.m.
Once the crews gained access, they found they had to rebuild the entire Siletz crossing. They dispatched additional personnel and specialized equipment, in coordination with the United States Coast Guard. Service was restored around 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
“This was a major undertaking and involved a rapid response and mobilization of crews across the state of Oregon,” said Matt Updenkelder, senior construction manager at Astound. “Together, our team worked to restore all services as quickly and safely as possible, in a sensitive area of the estuary that required coordinated efforts from crews nearby and even on the water.”
The fire danger from the mid-week storm has not entirely passed. Smoldering fires prevented from spreading by rain can reignite days or even weeks after the initial strike under the right weather conditions, and another prolonged period of extremely dry and hot weather is expected next week.
According to the coordinating center, it’s been a slow year in Oregon so far. On Tuesday, there were 21 wildfires classified as significant, burning a total of 111,553 acres. This time last year, 1,474,139 acres had been burned in 86 large wildfires.
In terms of thunderstorms, Tuesday night’s was only the 50th most active in Oregon in the past 20 years. A storm on August 5, 2013 produced 38,800 strikes, seven times more than this week.