After a wintry blast in early November left thousands of FEC customers in the cold dark, our Kalispell Transmission Line Maintenance crew stepped in to help the co-op recover.


We are more than just an electricity provider. We are partners with our utility customers and will gladly help out when we can.

Mike McCracken, operations and maintenance manager for the Kalispell District
As fall temperatures quickly shifted from baking to below freezing in western Montana, the Bonneville Power Administration’s Kalispell Transmission Line Maintenance crew began preparing for rampaging wintry storms instead of raging wildfires. So when an onslaught of wet, sticky snow and high winds buffeted Flathead County and left thousands of Flathead Electric Cooperative customers without power in early November, the Kalispell crew was ready to offer emergency support to get lights and heat back on in homes.

“Helping our customers and utility partners respond to system events and restore reliable service to the Northwest is just part of our culture,” said John Lahti, vice president of Transmission Field Services. “We have a lot of resources at our disposal and are happy help when able.”

Bonneville keeps mutual aid agreements with many of its utility customers to offer or receive immediate support when needed. In recent years, having an agreement in place with Portland General Electric enabled BPA to quickly help the utility when Winter Storm Uri hit significant portions of the Northwest. A similar agreement between BPA and FEC is why the co-op’s assistant general manager called BPA’s Mike McCracken, operations and maintenance manager for the Kalispell District, on Nov. 2. 

FEC was facing the largest outage event in its history, affecting 56.8%, or over 41,000 meters, of its electric system. McCracken, who was on leave at the time, coordinated with Sadie Shattuck, operations and maintenance manager for BPA’s Tri-Cities District, to organize Kalispell TLM’s response.  

In an area that frequently sees snow and ice, Shattuck explained the massive outage event wasn’t the result of a particularly nasty storm but an abnormally warm October. 

“The power grid easily handles wet, clingy snowfall when it occurs in the spring," said Shattuck. “By that time of year, trees are bare and solidly frozen to the ground. But a warm October left more leaves on branches for wet snow to stick to, weighing trees down, damaging them and contributing to numerous downed trees and power lines across FEC's footprint."

Mike Stolfus, foreman III, led the TLM crew of eight to report to the nearby Lake Blaine area in Kalispell the same day FEC requested backup. After making an initial pit stop at the co-op’s closest warehouse for the right-sized materials and tools needed to work on distribution lines versus BPA’s larger high-voltage transmission lines, Stolfus’ team worked up to 16 hours per shift over four days. Kalispell TLM focused on repairing broken distribution lines and clearing them of trees and limbs. Crewmembers hiked through thick snow with packs of tools and materials to reach some locations. 

“I’m thankful I have a crew that is willing to work long hours in winter conditions to restore power to our customers,” said Stolfus.

Nearby Montana power utilities Missoula Electric and Glacier Electric Cooperative also provided emergency assistance to FEC in different areas of the Flathead Valley. BPA continued to provide support through the weekend, and by Saturday night, Nov. 5, power was restored to most customers. FEC reports that crews responded to nearly 400 separate outages. 

“I’m proud of our Kalispell line crew for stepping up to help out our neighbors, working very long hours in the elements to restore power in a timely manner,” said McCracken. “Their diligence and hard work should make all of BPA proud. “

While the mutual aid agreements with BPA’s utility partners allow either party to seek assistance, BPA seldom needs to request aid due to the nature and robustness of its transmission system. But that doesn’t diminish the value of those agreements, as McCracken notes. 

“We often have few if any problems during winter events,” he said. “Having full rights-of-way versus pole line easements allows us to keep vegetation much further from our lines. In the Kalispell District, we have not suffered a severe enough event in my career that we required external assistance. It will happen someday, and thankfully, we have the mutual assistance agreements in place.”
Beyond enabling BPA to respond quickly when needed during times of crisis, mutual aid agreements offer reassurance and help build trusting, valued relationships between Bonneville and its customers. 

“We are more than just an electricity provider,” said McCracken. “We are partners with our utility customers and will gladly help out when we can.”

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