It was the night after Christmas when the wind started blowing. Renea CooperSmith and her husband David Smith were in bed, but sleep didn’t come.
“We’re native Oregonians, so the weather doesn’t shock us much,” CooperSmith said. “But in 42 years of living in the Illinois Valley this was the biggest wind storm I’d ever experienced – it was howling out there.”
Still awake at four in the morning, the pair started talking about the possibility of trees landing on the house.
“Then all of a sudden it happened! Boom! A huge tree hit the back part of our bedroom – and we were only 15 feet away,” she said. “It took off the corner of our house.”
Giving testament to the strength of the winds, the tree was a healthy four-foot diameter Douglas Fir. Estimated to be 150 feet tall, the tree also landed in their neighbor’s yard.
The couple rigged up buckets to capture the rainwater streaming into their house until it became light enough to stretch a tarp over the roof. It wasn’t safe outside.
“Branches were flying around out there,” CooperSmith added, “and we heard explosions from transformers blowing up on Old Stage Road. We saw bright flashes and the sky lit up from that. It was crazy, almost like lightning.”
Three other trees around the property also succumbed to the winds and she said Old Stage Road was likewise hit hard. “Some really big pines and firs came down and one tree cut a garage in half.”
Another giant tree that toppled over at the Kerby Trailer Park blocked traffic, and two miles southwest of O’Brien numerous large trees snapped off 10 feet above the ground.
“When trees snap off like that, it indicates high wind,” said Sven Nelaimischkies, a longtime meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Medford.
“The way the valley is aligned and how the winds come over the top of the area determines how big any high-wind event might become,” he said, “and this storm was part of a series of storms defined by very strong winds aloft.
“Throughout the region reports came in of roofs blown off, snapped trees, trees uprooted and downed power lines,” he said, adding how “atmospheric river events can seem like a giant hose is aimed at the pacific coast and that means higher than normal precipitation.”
Winds gusts on top of Eight Dollar Mountain clocked in at 85 miles per hour. Thousands of households lost power throughout the Illinois Valley: the lucky ones for a few hours but many others for several days. And as dawn broke on December 27, people reported changed landscapes, with random items moved around and lawns and gardens covered with lichen, leaves and fallen branches.
“The wind that night was freaking me out!” said Nancy Lyford in O’Brien, who lost power for 34 hours. “Luckily we have a wood stove, but I feel badly for people who don’t. My friend on Westside Road lost power for days. A lot of people are in trouble when this happens.”
Numerous households in Takilma also endured long power outages. Alyce Kendall said that “near Page Creek Road a large tree fell, blocking traffic. For a few days there was a sign saying the road was closed and this really helped slow people down. We lost power for three days but a number of power company trucks were working up and down the road. I feel they were present and attentive to our situation.”
Pacific Power spokesperson Drew Hanson said the areas in Oregon hardest hit Dec. 26 and 27 by “record-breaking high winds” included Coos Bay, Grants Pass, Medford and south through Cave Junction and into northern California, causing approximately 49,000 households to lose power.
Storms are tracked ahead of landfall to pre-position power line crews for quick response to expected outages. While hundreds of crews were mobilized, Hanson said operations were “challenged by ongoing widespread strong winds.” As stormy weather is predicted to stick around, Hanson wants people to refresh their emergency kits.
Carol Valentine’s family in Selma escaped the worst of the impacts, though she noted how people “living farther out went for much longer before their power was restored.”
Valentine and her husband have taken advantage of rebates and incentives available from both the state and the federal governments to install solar panels with a battery back-up system that automatically kicks in when the grid goes off line.
“So this brought our out-of-pocket costs way down and even included help in paying for construction of our new car port that holds a solar panel,” she said. “These incentives are for both low- and moderate-income level households. They’re really trying to make it doable for regular people. Now, we’ve learned that the federal tax credit for this is even higher in 2023.”
Valentine said becoming more self-sufficient can also support the Valley’s economy when local people are hired to do the installations.
“My husband says he never feels better than when we spend our money hiring local business people,” she added. “There’s a lot of people doing good things and we just don’t always hear about it – and here’s a case where the government is doing good things as well.”
Meteorologists always begin measuring the region’s ‘Water Year’ on Oct. 1. By that measure, as of Jan. 8, 2023, with 21.54 inches of rainfall, the Illinois Valley remains a little below normal for ‘average’ precipitation levels.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Center for Weather and Climate Prediction says chances are equal for precipitation for the next three months; and that while the region is considered to be under the influence of a weak La Nina, that this winter, for the most part, has been pretty normal.
Nelaimischkies said that “it’s unclear whether climate change will bring more of these kinds of wind events in the future. While it’s possible that the trends toward warmer wetter winters will bring stronger storms, there’s not yet enough data to discern any real patterns or make meaningful predictions.”