After days of snowbound isolation, residents of the Highway 2 communities of Index and Skykomish were able to do something Wednesday that many of us take for granted: Drive out of town.
Utility crews and workers with the state Department of Transportation (DOT) cleared fallen trees and power lines from the highway east of Gold Bar, allowing residents to drive out and stock up on food, firewood and fuel for generators. The stretch of highway west of Stevens Pass had been closed since Sunday.
But the agency warned the highway would likely be “temporarily” open “unless conditions change,” a reference to the expected high winds that could again fell snow-laden trees and power lines. The highway remains closed from east of Skykomish to Stevens Pass.
Some locals decided to take the initiative.
It was good news that Highway 2 had opened up. Still, for most of the residents along the 10-mile stretch of Highway 2, beginning west with the tiny community of Baring, Wednesday was Day 5 without power. It was a critical issue with temperatures hovering in the 20s.
On its outage map, Puget Sound Energy (PSE), which serves Baring and Skykomish, reported that restoration time was “to be determined.”
“Realistically, I’m not expecting power here for another three or four days,” said Skykomish Mayor Henry Sladek, who also owns the Cascadia Inn and has lived in the area for 15 years. He has been powering his inn and adjoining cafe with a generator.
The problem that PSE crews are facing is that as soon as one downed line is repaired, “another tree comes down and takes it out again because of the heavy snow,” said spokesman Andrew Padula.
In that Baring-to-Skykomish corridor on Wednesday afternoon, PSE had 756 customers were reported without power.
The town of Index, serviced by the Snohomish County Public Utility District, had power restored around 4 p.m. Wednesday.
However, in the forested areas nearby, the utility still had 427 customers without electricity, with no restoration time set.
The locals accepted what the deal is, living on the foothills of the Cascades.
On Wednesday, Anthony Vega, who lives a mile or so out of Skykomish, worked with friends to cut eight trees that had fallen over his driveway and the road.
Vega has a snowplowing business in the winter, and runs an ATV tour business in the summer. He figured he was clearing driveways with 3 to 4 feet of snow.
He described the scene outside his home. “A tree came down and snapped the power pole in half. I’ve got half of the power pole and lines everywhere,” he said.
Ever think about moving? No, said Vega.
“We love the work and playing in the mountains, 11 months of the year,” he said.
Sarah Sadler, who manages the Cascade Health Clinic in Index, was among those who headed straight into Gold Bar seven miles away once the highway was opened. With no electricity, she had been taking food out of her refrigerator and putting it out in the snow.
Her shopping list in Gold Bar included “Bread, peanut butter, water. And restocking on gas, primarily for the generator and snowmobiles.”
Although Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted on Wednesday that the Washington State Emergency Management Division would be involved in bringing in supplies to the isolated communities, the reality was that it was a much more informal effort.
To help out Skykomish residents, Garry Vire and Wendy Haynes, of Gold Bar, created a GoFundMe account, “Skykomish Convoy Relief,” which had raised $12,600 — more than its $12,000 goal — by Wednesday night.
“Skykomish is in dire need of heat, fuel, water, diapers, food, propane, etc.,” the site read.
On Wednesday morning, Vire said that 12 SUVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles went from the Family Grocer in Gold Bar to Skykomish. Along the way, they stopped at the two small unincorporated communities of Baring and Grotto and dropped off supplies.
Vire, who owns the Big Bear Vape & Glass shop in Gold Bar, said about organizing the convoy, “These are my neighbors, my family. When the call went out for help, that’s what we did.”
Among those helping with the convoy was King County sheriff’s Detective Ed Christian, its search-and-rescue coordinator.
“I know Skykomish very well. If you don’t have the right vehicle, you won’t make it,” he said about driving in a snowstorm. “I have an off-road county truck for the mountains.”
At the Gold Bar grocery, volunteers loaded up Christian’s vehicle with supplies that he drove to the fire station in Skykomish.
Despite the hardships, Vega took a philosophical approach.
“You’re up in the mountains, prepare for the worst,” he said.