As Chief Engineer for KISU-TV, I received the call at 7:37 p.m. informing us that both of our transmitters were off the air. Because that usually indicates a power outage, I made some calls to confirm this as I headed for our studio. That was when I first heard about the fire.
That news didn't sink in until I tuned in to live coverage from the area, broadcast by KIFI-Channel 8. The butte I knew so well was enveloped in fire! The transmitter I thought of as "mine" was threatened! Not a very rational, much less accurate, thought — but one that Star Trek's Scotty could relate to, as would my fellow broadcast engineers.
I thought back to the last major fire in the area several years ago, when we were without power for six days. We had a backup power generator back then — but not now. We lost it back in 2002 and have been seeking funds to replace it ever since. Although we received funding for a new one this month, we hadn't yet solicited bids for it.
Television broadcast transmitters take a lot of power, so you don't just rent a suitable backup generator from the local rental shop. The last time we had looked for one, the nearest available rental was in Spokane. So I focused first on alternative ways to get our programming to our audience.
Because about half of Pocatello households are served by CableOne, that was my first contact. Guy Cotroneo of ISU's Distant Learning Center was generous with his time in helping me get KISU's signal to the CableOne facility. Neil Ransbottom and Dave Brown then made sure we had the necessary equipment and installation assistance to get our signal from there to customers. At about 3:30 p.m. that same day, KISU-TV was back on the air — at least for the local CableOne customers.
Back at IdahoPTV's Boise office, Mary McMahon and Craig Koster were working on the next piece of the puzzle. When the legislature is in session, we use a system called CODEC to deliver audio and video from the statehouse to our Boise studio via the Internet. Mary and Craig tested and configured the system for KISU's use. It worked, and I met Craig late that afternoon in Jerome to retrieve it. The next day, our CableOne contacts made sure the CODEC signal could work with the Internet connection.
With that connection established, I headed over to the Idaho Falls office, where Brett Young and Lonnie Hodges assisted in connecting the decoder portion of the system to their equipment.
The village of people involved with this effort grew larger. The CableOne Internet gurus in their Phoenix office provided valuable assistance to make sure there was sufficient bandwidth for a broadcast-quality signal from their Pocatello office to their Idaho Falls office.
At around 4:00 p.m., success! Now all those communities served by the Idaho Falls CableOne office had our signal. Hooray!
Meanwhile, the IdahoPTV's Director of Technology, Rich Van Genderen, was burning up the phone lines looking for a generator. After hours of phone calls, he found one at Excel Equipment Company in Boise.
But the generator challenge wasn't over. The East Butte road isn't exactly a highway, and the generator and associated fuel tank are big and heavy. Excel Equipment found a flatbed truck and driver to deliver the generator and a "Cat" to haul it up the mountain. Because the INL had closed access to East Butte to accommodate the fire-fighting efforts, Rich also arranged for an escort for the generator to the top of the hill.
At 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, morning Terry from Excel arrived with generator and Cat at the Highway 20/26 junction, and we headed for the hill. We met Ted from Sermon Electric along the way. It was Ted's task to wire the generator into our building.
At 12:45 p.m. Saturday, we had power! For the first time since Wednesday night, all of our Southeast Idaho viewers could get our signal.
We were unclear about the burn rate on the generator — that is, how long the fuel would last. So we reduced the power on our analog transmitter (channel 10) to one-quarter of its normal power to conserve fuel. Most of our audience would notice little difference. We left our digital transmitter (ch 17) at full power. At that point, I thought all was well — we were on the air and prepared to endure the power outage. By this time we had heard that over 50 power poles had been destroyed, and were getting preliminary estimates of 4 to 10 days to make repairs.
But then, another surprise.
At around 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, I got a call from Idaho Power. The good news was they were going to take advantage of the situation and bury some of the most vulnerable and hard-to-maintain cable sections. That would make power more reliable in the long run. The bad news was that the East Butte road would be torn up on Monday and Tuesday, and closed to traffic. And Monday was when the temporary residents of the East Butte — including IdahoPTV — planned to refuel their generators. Some of us wouldn't be able to maintain operations until the road was opened again on Wednesday.
I immediately shut down our digital transmitter as a triage move. Most of our audience still uses our analog transmitter, and they would be left without our signal if we ran out of fuel. Back to the phones.
Two hours later, everyone on the hill had heard the news: More villagers to the rescue! We had found someone to deliver diesel and propane to the hill on Sunday. Mike and Dave with Bingham Cooperative would come to the rescue of the TV broadcasters by bringing a diesel tanker to the base of the hill.
Because the truck was too big and heavy to make it up the treacherous road to the top, Gary Smith of KIDK and Martin Hastings of KIFI jumped in to assist by hauling limited amounts of fuel up the hill with their pickups. They made shuttle runs from the tanker to the top of the hill, until all our fuel tanks got filled. Later on, I understand, V-1 Propane brought up propane for the propane users.
We now had a better idea of our burn rate of fuel, so we decided to turn our digital transmitter on from 6:00 p.m. to midnight each night but leave it off during the day to conserve fuel.
By Thursday, July 26, the hill was a beehive of activity. Idaho Power was busy with the final stages of restoring power on the hill. The various broadcasting "residents" of the butte were busy repairing damage to their facilities. And Perry, of PRB Oil, drove his diesel tanker up to the top of the hill and refueled the IdahoPTV, KIFI and KIDK fuel tanks. At the time of this writing, Idaho Power expects to have power restored to Idaho Public Television's facilities on Friday morning, July 27. We expect to establish normal operations within an hour of regaining commercial power.
Perhaps now you can understand why I say, "Sometimes it does take a village." Many people have contributed to restoring IdahoPTV's service to our viewers and maintaining service for other broadcasters and their customers.
On behalf of IdahoPTV and the other residents of the East Twin Butte, I want to express our thanks to each and everyone involved with the effort. My apologies to anyone I overlooked or whose name I mangled. You are all heroes!
Most of all, I can't say enough for the fire fighters and Idaho Power employees who worked around the clock in hot, tiring and dangerous conditions to put out the fire and restore power to the area. We also appreciate how well Idaho Power kept us apprised of the status of recovery efforts. Thanks to all.