Theft causes power outage

Avista blames stolen copper, equipment failure

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Roughly 6,000 were without power Monday morning across Kootenai County and part of Spokane, when theft at an Avista Utilities substation led to two stations being off line.

Avista crews discovered early Monday that copper wiring had been clipped from equipment in a dozen places at the substation at Prairie Avenue and Huetter Road, which resulted in power operating at lower levels.

The utility decided to take the station off line and transfer customers to the Appleway substation, where other pieces of equipment failed in the process.

That left both stations off line, and thousands in the dark across Coeur d'Alene, Hayden, Rathdrum, Post Falls, lower Pend Oreille and central Spokane.

"We intended to only have one (substation) out, with no customers impacted," explained Dan Kolbet, Avista spokesman.

As crews worked to restore power, a couple thousand customers' service was restored mid morning. More than 3,000 were without power in Post Falls and Rathdrum areas until after 1 p.m.

The copper theft looks to have been quite an undertaking, Kolbet noted.

The culprit cut through barbed wire topping the several-foot-high fence around the substation, he said, then used bolt cutters to harvest the copper wire inside.

"To be perfectly honest, it's a brazen act of stupidity," Kolbet said, noting the high risk of electrocution. "That puts not only the life of the person stealing the equipment in danger, but also our customers and employees."

The company sees copper thefts on a monthly basis, he said, usually off power lines, which is also risky.

Theft at sub stations are rare, he said.

"(Copper) is of value and can be reused," Kolbet said, adding that the substation's copper will likely be replaced with aluminum.

Lt. Stuart Miller with the Kootenai County Sheriff's Department said there wasn't information on Monday about leads, or if anyone witnessed the theft.

"Does it surprise me? No," Miller said of the situation. "Unfortunately, people are trying to get money any way they can, and this seems to be one way of doing it."

He saw a similar situation last year, he said, when a man tried stealing copper from a Worley substation and accidentally electrocuted himself. He was found walking dazed through a field, Miller said.

"I would think people would have some more common sense," Miller said. "Theft is bad enough, but that's poor decision making."

Sgt. Christie Wood with the Coeur d'Alene Police Department said there were too many intersection lights out on Monday for officers to direct traffic.

North Idaho College was among the entities impacted by the outage on Monday morning, said spokeswoman Stacy Hudson.

The majority of the campus was out, she said. Most classes were able to continue with natural light until the power returned around 10 a.m., she said.

"It's just kind of funny, today is the first day of spring semester," Hudson said. "The timing is always incredible."

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