Sloppy snow bends trees, snaps lines; thousands lose power
December 23, 2022
Requiring Herculean effort to regain a sense of normalcy, the first major snowstorm of the winter buried Cloquet and surrounding areas last week.
The storm transformed Carlton County into a winter wonderland, but the heavy snow also wreaked havoc on roads, electrical grids and trail systems.
It left young trees bowing like monks while older trees fell or dropped limbs overwhelmed by the weight of the wet snow. Evergreens turned white, with giant globs of snow pasted to every branch. The snow and overburdened trees combined to knock out power to homes and businesses in random locations across the region.
But people got through it.
Esko's Elaine Osborne was without power for 68 hours in her all-electric home, where the temperature got as low as 38. A neighbor brought "canned heat" so she could have a warm meal and hand warmers, another insisted on snow-blowing her property.
Blackhoof resident Tim Hagenah said all but two homes on his road lost power, adding that the sticky snow snapped two 12-foot-tall white pine trees he'd been nurturing, and left his back 40 acres with plenty of bent and broken trees.
Ski jumping coach Ken Ripp described Cloquet's Pine Valley recreation area as "a war zone" Sunday. All 5.5 kilometers of ski trails there were impassable after the storm because of fallen or drooping trees. It left the park to confront the unlikely scenario of having ample snow, while not being able to groom trails or ski them.
The National Weather Service put the three-day snow total at anywhere between 8 and 24 inches, with Carlton County on the high end of the scale. Storm totals in Wrenshall ranged from 17 to almost 21 inches. A weather spotter in Carlton put the total at over 29 inches.
The storm started with freezing rain and sleet Tuesday evening, Dec. 13, changing into snow overnight. According to a storm summary by the National Weather Service in Duluth, the first wave brought 6 to 12 inches of snow by Wednesday morning, Dec. 14.
There was a break in the snowfall during the day, but more snow started falling Wednesday night and continued into Thursday, Dec. 15, bringing another 8-20 inches of snow. Lighter snow lingered into Friday and Saturday.
The Weather Service said the snow was wet and heavy, with "three-day liquid equivalent values of 1 to 4 inches" of rain, adding that "the wet quality of this snow, unusual for winter storms in this area, heavily weighed down trees and power lines."
The local Weather Service office is calling the storm the "Blue Blizzard" of Dec. 13-16, because the density of the snowpack increased the ability of the snow the absorb red light and transmit blue light, "which led to many folks observing a glacier blue color in holes and cracks in the snow as they cleared it," the report explained.
Some parts of Carlton Count saw multi-day outages during and after the storm, made worse by the fact that many roads took days to clear. Blame the heavy snow and trees for that, too.
Duluth-based Minnesota Power reported outages affecting about 14,800 Minnesota Power customers Thursday morning, with at least 100 wires down across its service territory, a news release said.
"This has been a Herculean effort by our crews and more than 100 mutual assistance resources and it has been an historic storm in terms of the amount of damage to our system and the sheer number of trees/limbs/branches that downed wires," wrote Minnesota Power spokesperson Amy Rutledge.
Lake Country Power, which also serves parts of northeastern Minnesota, reported more than 11,700 members without power and 500 outage points to repair later the same day.
Lake Country Power reported line crews working to repair broken lines, chainsaw trees from lines and trudging their way through deep snow to restore power for co-op members, a news release said. Progress was slow and, in some areas, hard to make any headway. Many roads still had not been plowed and most of the repairs needed to be done manually to restore service by hand.
The largest outages Thursday morning were centered along the I-35 corridor from Cloquet to Hinckley and in the Nisswa-Pine River area north of Brainerd. Crews from areas to the north - where there were fewer outages - traveled to the Cloquet-Sandstone corridor, assisting the response.
Minnesota Power said the company restores power by first repairing major lines that feed the largest number of customers, with a priority for health and safety-related customers such as hospitals, water plants and police and fire facilities. The last repairs typically are individual service lines to homes and businesses.
Incoming school board member Mary Carlson headed the effort to open Wrenshall School during the storm and subsequent power outages.
She worked with superintendent Kim Belcastro into the night Thursday, Dec.15, to make arrangements for a Friday, Dec. 16 opening. Wrenshall custodians didn't hesitate when asked to have the building open, Carlson said. She described them sitting on the school's front steps, exhausted from shoveling to prepare the opening.
"The people that were here really needed it," Carlson said. "They felt refreshed and they could charge things up and it was just a very positive atmosphere."
Four families without power utilized the open school, as well as several others who used the open gym to run off pent-up energy, Carlson said.
Many ski and snowmobile trails in the region remain ungroomed because there are so many bent trees and branches in the way.
The Wood City Riders Snowmobile Club posted on Facebook that only about 25 percent of its system was verified passable as of Monday.
"I've never seen anything like it," Emma said, describing how branches were down all over the park entrance as well as the trails.
Cloquet assistant director of public works Ross Biebl, city street supervisors, and city administrator Tim Peterson spent about three hours at the park Friday, cutting brush, which they left for volunteers to gather. On Saturday, Waugh, her parents and several others worked on the trails and ski jumps.
A good-sized crowd of volunteers came on Sunday, the jumping coach, Ken Ripp, said. Armed with eight chainsaws, clippers and nippers, Cloquet Kids Ski parents and others fanned out across Pine Valley, cutting off more branches and damaged trees, clearing the path for the Lumberjacks high school Nordic ski team, Kids Ski and anyone else who enjoys the free ski trails there.
Biebl said the lighted 2.5K loop had been groomed for skiing by Monday afternoon with an additional 1K on the way, but there's dangerous work still to be done to clear the back loop. "There's a lot of tension on that wood, so that one is further out," he said.
He also praised the city crews for their work clearing Cloquet city streets, the top priority, noting that they worked long hours through the weekend to clear and move snow.
The trails at the Cloquet Forestry Center are also a maze of bent and broken trees and branches, said Kyle Gill, forest manager and research coordinator. There are fewer branches down where they've done active thinning, in which they take down roughly one out of every three trees to make more room for growth.
"This snow is having the same effect [as thinning]," he said, noting that a tree closer to a neighboring tree will have less structural stability. "Heavy snow will take out trees that are susceptible, and leave the less susceptible."
He said some trees such as white pine and silver maples may have evolved to survive these heavy snows by dropping branches.
"They basically sacrifice limbs to keep the main body intact," he said.
Gill isn't too worried about the health of the forest, noting that he's had to learn that we can't control what happens and to think about the bigger picture.
"Individual tree health and wellness is different from forest wellness," he said. "We need the older generation to get knocked down by wind or fires, to create space for other individuals that need that shared space. There's a lot of resilience in the forest community."
Still, for those who are intent on saving individual trees, it's not a bad thing to knock the snow off.
"It depends if there's been internal damage, or stress fractures that you can't see," he said. "But people can knock it off and try to prop up the tree to reorient it and see what happens once it thaws out."
More to come
With more snow and bitterly cold temperatures expected Wednesday through Saturday, more trees could tumble and affect power lines.
According to a Tuesday evening press release, Minnesota Power has been working since last week's storm to pre-emptively remove trees that threaten power lines and could cause an outage.
All power lines, including downed power lines on the ground, should be considered energized and capable of causing injury or death. Drivers and customers should give crews the space they need to work safely along roads and streets, and slow down when driving near them.
Pine Knot News reporter Brady Slater contributed to this report.