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Massive Power Outage Hits 7 Western States

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A whopping power failure blacked out huge swaths of seven western states on a sizzling afternoon Saturday, trapping some people in elevators and others in airports, melting grocery store ice cream, shutting down movie theaters and gumming up traffic everywhere.

Lights blinked out and air conditioners wheezed off for nearly 5 million California residents when major power lines feeding the state failed about 3:45 p.m. The blackout, wildly random, hit patches of territory stretching from Oregon to the Mexican border.

No serious injuries were attributed to the power failure, but some regions reported disruptions in phone service and water pumping.

Officials traced the blackout--the second major power outage this summer--to disruptions in two major lines feeding California, one near the Oregon border and one close to Arizona. Those breaks apparently triggered a chain reaction of outages that sped through power companies serving cities across the West.

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Although some speculated that a brush fire near Oregon could have sparked the problem, officials emphasized that the cause remained unclear late Saturday.

“Most likely, multiple things had to go wrong . . . to trigger this kind of outage,” said Maureen Palmer, manager of special projects for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Saturday’s outage hit as much of the West endured near-record high temperatures. Curtis Brock of WeatherData Inc., which provides forecasts to The Times, said the mercury topped 100 in eastern Oregon and the San Joaquin Valley, reaching 113 in Red Bluff. Boise, Idaho hit 104. “That’s definitely unusual,” Brock said.

The reasons for the failure may have been fuzzy, but the result was clear: It was one of the largest power outages on record.

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“We haven’t seen anything quite as extensive as this in quite some time,” Palmer said.

DWP spokeswoman Debra Sass said 40% of the 3.6 million people served by the DWP lost power, but that two hours later “the city of Los Angeles had virtually all its power restored.”

Southern California Edison’s power circuits were also up and running by 7 p.m. for most of its 1.8 million affected customers. Outages in Northern California and parts of San Diego persisted long past dusk.

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In Fresno, where most of the city receives water from wells powered by electric pumps, the city manager declared a local emergency. Only two of the city’s 16 fire stations had water sources and most of the fire hydrants were out. The county and Air National Guard rushed in tankers to boost the Fire Department’s capacity.

The State Office of Emergency Services said power was expected to be restored statewide by midnight Saturday.

Other states reporting problems were Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Nevada, Texas and Idaho.

Without power, San Francisco International Airport could not position its jetways at airplane doors, stranding passengers on board. A Long Beach store owner struggled to figure out the tax on soccer balls without his electric calculator. Disneyland had to evacuate thrill-seekers from Space Mountain, although the rides revved up again within seconds. And customers at an Anaheim self-service laundry had to take their clothes from lifeless dryers and wring them out on the sidewalk.

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In Los Angeles, officials proudly reported that they managed to restore service quicker, and more comprehensively, than in many other parts of the state. Still, even a few hours without electricity caused chaos.

Los Angeles police went on a citywide tactical alert as supervisors ordered some day shift officers to stay on duty into the night. Firefighters patrolled the city, responding to dozens of reports of stuck elevators. Department of Transportation crews checked on 4,000 intersections where the outage could have put traffic lights on the fritz.

Blaring fire alarms and broken water lines added to the havoc, said Fire Department spokesman Bob Collis.

His counterparts across the state--and throughout the West--echoed his frustration. Even when the electricity started flowing again, many traffic lights just blinked red, forcing tense drivers to navigate intersections with hand signals and honks--some polite, some outright obnoxious.

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“Traffic is a nightmare. They’re just backed up everywhere. It’s gridlock,” said Bruce Metdors of the San Francisco Police Department Operations Bureau.

Some people took the inconvenience with good cheer.

In Palm Springs, hotels dragged gas barbecues to their pools and grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. Tourists drank margaritas on the rocks, because the blenders didn’t work. And even though the air conditioner was only working weakly, gamblers crowded into the Spa Casino, where a backup generator kept the slot machines ringing bells, flashing lights and collecting money.

In Dana Point, guests at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel carried on as best they could, although lights blinked out in the rooms and two employees were temporarily stuck in an elevator.

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“It’s rather hectic but we are moving along as best we can,” manager Sharon Tayler said. “We had two weddings today that were just winding down and the electricity for the bands went out. They rolled a piano in immediately and guests sat down and started playing. We’re moving along. They are just having fun with it.”

Far less good humor was in evidence at the San Francisco Airport. Spokesman Bob Schneider said emergency generators provided only 25% of the power needed to run the facility. Although the control tower worked, the airport could not operate security systems or computers and was diverting flights to San Jose and Oakland. “We are pretty much out of business,” Schneider said.

John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana quickly switched to backup power and experienced only a few cancellations of flights to San Francisco and points north, said airport spokeswoman Kathleen Campini Chambers. Elevators, escalators and baggage carousels were not functioning, causing major inconvenience for travelers. But the airport security computers whirred along normally.

“Obviously, we have made provisions for emergencies such as this,” Chambers said. “Staff is working hard to make sure the airport continues to run in a successful manner during this emergency.”

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Another transportation delay occurred on the Blue Line running between Long Beach and Los Angeles. Hundreds of riders gathered at the 7th Street station in downtown Los Angeles during the delay, said an MTA spokeswoman. But aside from the brief inconvenience, no major problems were reported, as train operators ran the trains manually.

Saturday’s outage was the second major power failure in the West this summer. On July 2, an outage affected California and 15 other western states.

The most recent problem shut down the soda guns at the Dodsworth Bar & Grill on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena’s Old Town. Traffic signals and stoplights were knocked out as delegates arrived for the Republican National Convention in San Diego, causing some tie-ups. And in restaurants and movie theaters near South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, patrons were forced to exit buildings when the power went out.

Kerry Styles of Irvine was watching the movie “Trainspotting” and said, “The movie was getting good and all of a sudden the screen went black and the emergency lights went on. We didn’t know what happened. We thought the film had broken.”

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Martin Moraga was equally frustrated when the lights went out as he was settling down to enjoy lunch with his family at the Planet Hollywood in Santa Ana.

“This really stinks,” Moraga said shortly after leaving the restaurants. “We were here to have a family lunch together and we didn’t even get to order.”

There were, however, a few culinary bright spots around the state. At Peet’s Coffee in southeast San Francisco, the staff gave away coffee that normally sells for $1.75 a cup, figuring they would be better off donating the hot brew to customers than letting it cool beyond good taste.

“We like to keep our customers happy,” said Trish Davis, who works the counter at Peet’s. “We just gave away the coffee. We couldn’t do anything else.”

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Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Patrick McDonnell, Jose Cardenas, Hector Tobar, Paul Lieberman, Greg Hernandez, Sara Fritz, Mary Curtius, Richard Simon, Stephanie Simon, Bob Pool, Mark Gladstone, Max Vanzi, Jeffrey L. Rabin and correspondents Scott Steepleton, Diana Marcum, Sylvia Oliande, Rob O’Neil and Maggie Barnett.

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Loss of Power

Much of California and six other western states were affected Saturday by a widespread power failure. The outage hit as much of the West endured near-record high temperatures.

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