AUGUSTA — More than 21,000 homes in Kennebec County and more than 92,000 across the state lost power Monday as trees and power lines fell victim to the increasing weight of nearly an inch of ice accumulated over multiple days of freezing precipitation.
With outage reports climbing, Central Maine Power crews focused Monday night, not on restoring power, but on making sure downed lines are no longer electrified and are as safe as possible.
“As long as we’re in the impact phase, as we are, with calls still coming in, our focus is to make sure any downed lines are de-energized,” said John Carroll, a spokesman for CMP. “That’s what we’re going to do first. There is some restoration going on. But our real emphasis is on public safety.”
Carroll said if CMP customers don’t have power Monday night, they probably won’t have it back on until Tuesday.
He said the outages will be assessed overnight and the company should have a better idea Tuesday of whether some customers could be without power for a second or third night.
Power lines or branches on fire were reported at several locations in central Maine, though none appeared to have caused larger fires.
Firefighters, utility crews, police, and plow and sand truck drivers struggled to keep up with the damage caused by the storm.
Forecasters originally thought the storm would end Sunday night, but it dragged on and could create added problems through Christmas Day and into the weekend.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Mike Kistner, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray.
Added moisture on Monday will be followed by a deep freeze and strong winds, with gusts of up to 25 mph.
Three-quarters of an inch of ice accumulated over the weekend, and that amount was expected to increase to nearly an inch by the end of the day on Monday, more than any other region in the state.
Carroll said CMP got a weather forecast Monday morning that indicated the state could have a band of weather, including Lewiston, Augusta, Rockland and up the coast to Castine, where there would be a high probability for more icing.
“It was a confluence of just the right temperature, the temperature of the rainfall, and the rain falling at the right pace,” Carroll said of why outages spiked up Monday, one day after the initially projected peak of the storm. “Ice storms are fickle things. You have to have just the right conditions.”
While much of the state was warming up, temperatures remained below freezing in Waterville and Augusta, with readings in the high 20s on Monday afternoon.
The freezing temperatures are expected to last until at least the end of the weekend, creating continued problems.
“The ice isn’t going to go anywhere out of the trees for quite some time,” Kistner said.
Temperatures are expected to be in the 20s or high teens Tuesday. On Wednesday — Christmas Day — Kistner said he was expecting a low of zero degrees.
“It’s kind of hard to treat the roads when they’re that cold,” he said.
The early stages of the storm weren’t as bad as initially expected Sunday because a cold front hadn’t yet made it to the region.
“When the bulk of the moisture came through yesterday, a lot of areas weren’t even below freezing yet,” he said. “A lot of area to the southwest just fell as plain rain.”
In downtown Augusta, Larry Fleury was at his Water Street home, preparing for a Christmas party for his real estate management company’s employees Monday afternoon when he heard a pop pop pop that sounded like gunshots.
He went outside to see a power line down across the parking lot of a neighboring commercial building he owns, the line on fire, and on top of a tenant’s GMC Jimmy SUV parked next to the building at 49 Water St.
“Fire is running along like it’s a wick, it’s on the hood of (the SUV) and I thought âMy God, it’s going to explode, and catch the whole place on fire,'” Fleury said. “I was shaking as I called 911.”
The fire went out on its own, according to Deputy Fire Chief David Groder, and did little visible damage to the vehicle or building.
But that didn’t mean the line was no longer charged with electricity, as a CMP lineworker who arrived on scene found out when he briefly, while wearing gloves, touched the line with an insulated pair of pliers, and sparks shot from it for a second.
Groder said firefighters checked the building but found no signs of smoke or other damage.
Fleury said help was on the scene within 10 minutes and the incident only knocked out power to part of the 49 Water St. building. So the Christmas party was back on.
The owner of the SUV, Mike Ellingwood, examined his vehicle but didn’t see any obvious damage, other than some char marks across his hood where the lines had melted through the ice and made contact with the metal.
Groder said Monday afternoon firefighters had responded to about a dozen calls of trees on lines and other ice-related calls, most of them in the afternoon.
Jared Mills, deputy police chief in Augusta, said when the rain intensified late Monday morning there was a corresponding increase in trees and wires coming down on roads.
“Crashes have not been too bad,” Mills said Monday afternoon. “Since early this morning we have responded to 17 reports of wires or debris in the roadway and eight crash reports. Public works has done a terrific job with the roads.”
Carroll said CMP’s priorities for restoration are transmission lines, which feed the rest of the system, first, then power lines that serve critical facilities such as hospitals, shelters, police and fire departments and schools, followed by trunk lines with the ones that are likely to return power to the most people getting fixed first, then, finally, to the ends of each circuit.
Carroll urged people to stay clear of downed lines and other CMP equipment, even if crews have already been there to de-energize the lines, and to use care while passing crews working alongside dark, icy roads.
Keith Edwards – 621-5647[email protected]Morning Sentinel reporter Matt Hongoltz-Hetling contributed to this report.