DEL NORTE – A major equipment failure on a natural gas line early Saturday morning left about 800 households without heat as a major snowstorm began to hammer the San Luis Valley.
The outage lasted about 18 hours, ended by an army of 170 Xcel Energy emergency workers from across Colorado who descended on the town. But even after gas service was restored, there was no heat.
As snow began to fall, the utility warned customers to wait until professionals went door to door to check pilot lights before turning on natural-gas fueled furnaces and hot water heaters.
Early Saturday afternoon, in its small office outside town, Xcel was mustering the first wave of people — about 60 workers — dispatched to help get the gas line back in service. The rapid and meticulously organized effort illustrated how planning and preparation enabled a small community to dodge the dangers of extreme weather in a relatively remote location.
It was a methodical process that involved Xcel workers coming from as far away as Fort Collins and semi-tankers filled with compressed natural gas to make sure the most fragile folks in town stayed warm.
An Xcel Energy vehicle prowls one of Del Norte’s streets late into the night on Dec. 14, 2019, working to relight pilot lights for residents’ natural gas heaters during the winter storm. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)
The affected area was broken into grids on maps and teams were first assigned to go out and turn off the gas in preparation for purging all the lines. A regulator had failed on a high-pressure line. “We also lost one regulator station here in town,” Xcel’s Kevin Johnson said.
Once the lines were purged, Xcel began the slow process of checking in at homes, warning that the relighting process might last into Sunday. “If that is the case, we are working on additional resources to help customers,” the utility said in a Facebook message to customers.
Around the same time, the National Weather Service changed its forecast to a winter storm warning from an advisory, with up to 10 inches of snow expected in Del Norte and greater amounts in the surrounding higher elevations.
Val Dilly, who manages La Hacienda Del Norte and Casas De Rio Grande Senior Housing, passed out space heaters to all 48 units. “We had some on hand from a similar incident four or five years ago, but not enough, so I acquired an additional 30 heaters today.”
Dilly also said there was an Xcel Energy truck from Rifle on site at Casas De Rio Grande working on pumping compressed natural gas into the complex’s boilers in hopes they would reset automatically.
Xcel used a similar technique at The River Valley Inn Nursing Home, assistant administrator Susan King said. The first truck lasted about a two and a half hours, but Xcel sent a second truck and then dispatched an 18-wheeler from Denver.
“We have all 42 of our residents currently in the common area that we are able to heat and maintaining it at 76 degrees,” King said. “We are also about ready to fire up the outdoor grills and make up some burgers.”
The nursing home had a plan C, too, making arrangements to evacuate residents to Monte Vista Estates nursing home if necessary, King said.
“Also our sister facility in La Jara has agreed to assist us and will actually come and pick up 10 of our residents if needed,” King said. “And we have a multitude of families that are coming to take their loved ones home for the evening.”
King said all 10 of her management staff were onboard in addition to the nurses and CNAs that were already there for the day, along with the dietary staff and housekeeping, too.
“Our staff is helping to prepare emergency meals for Rio Grande Hospital in the event they get patients coming in from the general population of the community,” she said. “We have 50 sack lunches ready to go.”
King said she and her staff are all part of the San Luis Valley Emergency Management Team.
“I’ve already been on four group calls and know exactly where all my resources are,” said King. “Rio Grande Hospital has been a big help and they would be able to take 12 to 15 residents if we need it, but the plan right now is to shelter in place.”
Rio Grande Hospital is heated by propane rather than natural gas so was able to offer services to the community when others couldn’t.
The River Valley Inn, the hospital, the school gym and school library were available to the community as warming places, King said.
Local businesses were pretty much on their own as far as providing heat for their customers.
The Windsor Hotel and Dining Room closed for the afternoon and had only a few reservations for Saturday night. Most had been contacted and informed about the situation. The staff was prepared for anyone wanting to spend the night and had several new electric space heaters available in the lobby.
Most of the restaurants in town did not fare too well without natural gas since that is what is used for cooking as well as the hot water necessary for cleanliness.
The Colorado Tap and Grill stayed open to serve coffee for anyone who came by, but could not serve food and closed early. Boogies Restaurant closed for the entire day.
Three Barrel Brewery uses a wood-fired oven for their pizzas, calzones and other dishes on its menu so was busy with hungry customers.
There was a big event at The Ruth Marie Community Center on Saturday night and many people were seen arriving with pot luck items as well as space heaters.
Much thanks and praise was given around the town and on social media for the excellent professional response from Xcel Energy. Overall, the town of Del Norte weathered the emergency gas outage well and residents said it brought the already tight-knit community even closer together, even as the snow continued to fall.