The forced-air furnace doesn't work without electricity, so Ft. Harrington's only heat for the past four days was from the wood-burning stove in our barn of a living room at the far end of the structure.
When our gasoline-powered generator died last year, we decided not to go to the expense of repairing or replacing it. A long time had passed since there had been a power outage longer than a couple of hours here in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and we figured that PG&E had beefed up the grid sufficiently that the expense wasn't really justified.
The wind started to pick up a bit around midday last Wednesday, the last day of November, while I was at work. Diane tells me that the power went out here in the mountains at about 3:30, and we were a little surprised that it was still out when I got home after dark. We settled in for a pleasant evening by candlelight, warmed by the wood-burning stove in the living room.
Diane and Kelsey by candle- and stove-light.
The "pleasant" part of that stopped at about midnight, as December came in like a dragon. My friend Paul, the meteorology guy at our college, told me the next day that winds had topped hurricane force at the tops of several mountains around the Bay Area that night. While not that strong down here in Ft. Harrington's hollow, it was plenty strong enough. The sound of small branches hitting the roof was almost nonstop for a while in the wee hours, and the characteristic rifleshot-crack of redwood limbs separating from their trees, followed by the whoosh as they fell their hundred feet or more through other branches, followed by the thud (or worse) when the widowmakers hit the ground punctuated the night.
25 feet long and having fallen about 100 feet, this "widowmaker" redwood branch fell in about the best place it could have, causing only minor damage to a grape arbor (at left) and the rose garden area (at its far end).
Things had settled down a bit by dawn, and it was evident that we had been very, very lucky, as had all of our immediate neighbors. While there was lots of damage to peripheral structures, nobody's house was crushed. (At last report, though, at least four homes were destroyed by falling trees elsewhere in these mountains.)
Crunched deck railing.
The electrical power grid had been devastated overnight. Both main lines into the San Lorenzo Valley, one up from Santa Cruz to the south and the other over the mountains from the Bay Area to the west, were so badly damaged in wilderness areas that crews and equipment had to be brought in by helicopter to essentially rebuild large sections of them. It took nearly four days for power to be restored here; the Fort was off the grid for 93 hours and 15 minutes, ending at 12:45 this afternoon.
Old Kelsey and I keep each other warm. (Photo by Diane Harrington.)
The lack of a generator made things a bit more inconvenient and uncomfortable than we would have liked, but we mostly feel like we dodged a bullet -- or an RPG -- or two, and know how lucky we were. The two big "widowmaker" redwood branches that fell on our property only damaged a deck railing and a grape arbor -- far less damage than they would have worked if less considerately placed. Also, this was a dry wind, not a rain storm. If it had been a typical wet winter storm, with the ground soaked, that fierce wind would have toppled whole redwoods, not just pieces of them. That nightmare would have been just horrendous -- but it didn't happen.
Seven minutes before the power came back on: Jax (lower) and Cooper (upper) keep the old man warm and vice versa. We didn't keep the fire going except in the evenings, and -- while not cold by northern December standards -- the temperature in the house during the day was generally in the upper 40s and lower 50s Fahrenheit.
No, it didn't happen this time. But it will. And you can bet we'll have a generator when it does.