The Union Democrat
Weekend light show
Dynamic lightning storm leaves 17K without power, sparks more than a dozen fires
Apowerful lightning storm unleashed more than 300 ground strikes, damaged 30 utility transformers, left 17,000 Pacific Gas and Electric Co. customers and most of Sonora in darkness, and ignited more than a dozen vegetation fires in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties Saturday evening.
Anyone who was in downtown Sonora for 2nd Saturday Art Night festivities will not be surprised that some business owners estimate they lost thousands of dollars in business due to the timing of the storm that hit before sundown, as bolts of lightning exploded, brief but intense downpours came down, and outages knocked out power on the west side of Washington Street, all while multiple live music performances were underway inside and outside several businesses.
Lightning strikes earlier Saturday stunned a family on Big Hill, where lightning struck so close to their home it sounded like an instantaneous explosion that blew up a television, a laptop, a desktop computer, and a stereo system, burned up a router, and vaporized an antenna.
“It was about 2:30 p.m. Saturday,” Brian Annett, a full-time teacher at Cassina High School, said Monday in a phone interview. “I’d been landscaping all day and was inside taking a shower. Getting dressed I heard this boom! It wasn’t like rolling thunder at all, it was sudden and maybe the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. Power went out immediately.
“My wife said she thought the house was on fire. I grabbed a fire extinguisher and looked through the house. No fire. Went to check on the shed with all my stuff. My son Jimmy opened the door of the shed and smoke came rolling out, and he looked really dazed like he had a concussion. I look and there’s a hole in the roof and tons of dust everywhere. It was crazy. Then I covered the hole with a tarp with more lightning striking close by. Thousands of dollars of stuff was destroyed. We don’t have renters insurance. It’s a total loss.”
Annett added, “It was terrifying. My little guy is 3, and he was crying. Jimmy is 18. He’s OK today.”
About 310 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes touched down in Tuolumne County between 5:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. Saturday, Chelsea Peters and Katrina Hand with the National Weather Service in Sacramento said Monday.
Spells of rain pounded down at rates from 0.50 inch to 2 inches per hour. Rainfall totals produced by the storm were estimated at 0.60 inch to 1.25 inches across the Jamestown-Sonora area within six hours.
The weather pattern was “a small disturbance with a slow-moving upper level system, which allowed the storms to be concentrated in a smaller area,” the National Weather Service said, adding, it was “not all that unusual.”
The National Weather Service defines lightning as a visible electrical discharge produced by a thunderstorm, which may occur within or between clouds, between the cloud and air, between a cloud and the ground, or between the ground and a cloud.
“Thunderstorms can be capable of producing heavy rain, gusty winds, hail and dangerous lightning,” National Weather Service Sacramento staff said Monday. “Always remember that if you hear thunder or see lightning to seek shelter in a building or vehicle. If a safe location is not nearby, you can slightly lessen the threat of being struck by avoiding open fields, tall and/or metal objects, and bodies of water.”
Meteorologists for PG&E recorded “nearly 900 instances of lightning” during Saturday night’s lightning storm,
without differentiating cloud-to-ground strikes. The utility found about 30 damaged transformers that required repairs Sunday.
Jeff Smith, an operations and communications manager with PG&E, said Monday more than 17,000 of the utility’s customers in Tuolumne County and part of Calaveras County were without power at the peak of the outages Sunday morning.
The utility restored 15,600 customers as of Sunday night, but there were additional outages that occurred, Smith said.
An estimated 2,888 PG&E customers in the Sonora area lost their power about 9 p.m. Saturday due to enhanced powerline safety settings, which reacted to lightning strikes that came earlier, according to Smith.
About 4,000 PG&E customers remained without power Monday. Those outages included 185 customers between Mono Vista and Twain Harte who lost power just before 9 p.m. Sunday; 837 customers north of Phoenix Lake to Cedar Ridge who lost power at 9:27 p.m. Sunday; and 670 customers between Long Barn and Strawberry who lost power at 10:33 a.m. Monday. PG&E hoped to restore power to all customers sometime Monday afternoon or Monday evening.
PG&E had 100 personnel on the ground in Tuolumne County and six helicopters in the air Sunday to patrol and survey electric infrastructure, Smith said.
The utility hoped to complete all necessary repairs Monday and continue restoring power to customers who remained without electricity.
“We appreciate our customers’ patience as we work to restore power,” Smith said. “PG&E crews are working safely and as quickly as possible.”
The lightning storm coincided with numerous traffic incidents, California Highway Patrol personnel based in Jamestown said. There was a minor-injury motorcycle crash on Highway 120 near Wards Ferry Road in Groveland at 5 p.m.; a power pole and tree down at Utah Drive at Lassen Drive in Cold Springs at 5:30 p.m.; a non-injury auto crash at Highway 49 and Schilling Road near Coulterville at 7:30 p.m.; traffic signals out at Highway 108 and O’byrnes Ferry Road at 7:40 p.m.; a non-injury motorcycle crash at Highway 108 and O’byrnes Ferry Road at 7:41 p.m.; traffic signals out at Highway 108 and Rawhide Road at 9 p.m.; a non-injury auto crash at Rawhide Road and Peppermint Creek Road at 9:15 p.m.; traffic signals out at Mono Way and Elsey Court at 9:30 p.m.; a non-injury auto crash at O’byrnes Ferry Road and Old O’byrnes Ferry Road at 10:30 p.m.; and signals out again at Highway 108 and O’byrnes Ferry Road at 11:45 p.m.
“We would like to remind the motoring public that while traveling in stormy conditions, please slow down and use caution,” CHP Officer Steve Machado, spokesman for the agency’s Sonora-area office, said Monday. “Look out for hazards in the roadways and just be patient. Wear your seatbelt and if at all possible, prolong your trip until after the storm passes.”
Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit and the Tuolumne County Fire Department responded to 13 different vegetation fires related to the Saturday storm, Emily Kilgore with Cal Fire said Monday. Eleven fires were reported in Tuolumne County, and two were reported in Calaveras County.
Kilgore said all of the 13 fires were contained or controlled by Monday, with the largest burning about 5.15 acres.