Where Do Power Poles Come From?

When snow took down LEC lines, McFarland Cascade ramped up to supply poles

By Craig Reed

A McFarland Cascade employee prepares treatment of a batch of power poles. The process usually takes 30 to 40 hours.

It is well known by now that February’s snowstorm was devastating for Lane Electric Cooperative and its members. Power outages were widespread as thousands of trees and branches burdened with wet snow came crashing to the ground, taking with them power poles, cross arms and lines.

What might not be as obvious is the collaboration required between Lane Electric and its vendors to get supplies needed to repair the system and restore power.

Once crews assessed the damage, approximately 200 power poles needed to be replaced. Lane Electric typically replaces 200 poles each year during ongoing system maintenance. The same number needed to be replaced in fewer than two weeks.

Lane Electric had 90 poles in its yard at the onset of the storm and immediately ordered more when crews reported the damage assessment. McFarland Cascade, Lane Electric’s vendor for power poles, was quick to respond to the expedited request, churning out treated 40- and 45-foot poles as fast as possible.

“When we get an emergency order like this, it goes to the front of the line,” says Robert Campbell, plant manager of McFarland Cascade’s facility just off Highway 99 between West Eugene and Junction City. “We keep basic stock on hand in order to handle an emergency like this. We focus on getting out what is needed and taking care of our customers.”

Melissa Rothweiler, Lane Electric’s cost accounting clerk and purchaser, says pole orders typically take four to six weeks to fill and receive. This time, the order was filled in a week.

While fulfilling Lane Electric’s order, McFarland Cascade also provided poles to Douglas Electric Cooperative and Pacific Power, who also were dealing with widespread outages and hundreds of broken poles.

Robert says pole orders came in on Thursday and Friday, a few days after the snow stopped. Poles were delivered the following Tuesday and Wednesday. McFarland Cascade’s 30 employees put in some long days, brushing a foot of snow off the poles in their yard to process them. Several employees worked that Saturday.

“We’ve done this before and know how to respond,” Robert says. “We have four treatment cylinders and they’re always going 24/7.”

Lane Electric Engineering and Operations Manager Tony Toncray says McFarland Cascade understood the urgency.

“Their effort was phenomenal,” Tony says. “For their willingness to help, I can’t thank them enough for the work they did and their response.”

During this hectic time, Lane Electric asked to have the poles drop-shipped straight to where they were needed in the field. McFarland Cascade worked out the logistics with Leavitt’s Freight Service of Springfield and with the co-op. Leavitt’s had the trucks and trailers to haul the poles straight from the treatment yard to the work sites.

“We were already short on trucks and trailers because they were out in the field,” Tony says. “To have Leavitt’s involved saved us time, labor and equipment. It also easily saved us at least a day in our restoral efforts by getting poles directly to the sites.”

Melissa says there was constant communication among the companies and the co-op.

“We were throwing a lot at them,” she says. “Plans were changing daily, but everything worked out wonderfully because of the level of communication.”

Poles in the McFarland Cascade yard lay under several inches of snow after a late February storm. Photo by Robert Campbell

Like many Lane Electric employees, Robert says some McFarland Cascade employees were impacted by the storm, with their own homes out of power and their driveways blocked by downed trees and branches. They were aware of the urgency of the situation.

“I tell the crew that what we do is very important,” Robert says. “There’s a sense of pride that goes along with knowing we provide a product that is supplying a service that is very important to life, even though it is taken for granted.”

The McFarland Cascade plant treats an estimated 50,000 utility poles a year. The poles are shipped to utility and telecommunications companies and contractors across the U.S. and beyond.

The straightest trees with no excessive spiral in the wood, no excessive knots and the fewest breaks or cracks make the best poles. McFarland Cascade foresters cruise potential timber sales and make their selections from Pacific Northwest Douglas fir trees.

“In a natural stand of Douglas fir trees, only 5 to 8 percent are good for poles,” says Dean Anderson, director of U.S. pole sales for McFarland Cascade. “Douglas fir provides an exceptional pole product that is straight, true, has a high strength factor and longevity. The most valuable use for a tree is to make it into a utility pole.”

Selected trees are delimbed debarked, then inspected again for defects. At the McFarland Cascade plant, the tree is cut to length and prepped for a pressurized preservative treatment that increases its longevity by warding off pests and moisture. Holes are drilled in the bottom of the pole that eventually end up in the ground and a few feet above ground level. The holes provide access to the interior of the pole during treatment.

Poles are stacked on rail carts and rolled into retorts— large tubular cylinders—that are sealed. An average of 50 to 60 poles can be treated in a cylinder. Moisture is removed from the wood by a process called “boiling under a vacuum.” When that is complete, the cylinder is filled with an oil preservative mixture. The liquid is injected into the wood cells.

The final steps involve easing the pressure, removing excess oil and storing it for future use, injecting steam for cleaning and sterilizing the pole, and a final vacuum-cleaning cycle. The complete retort process takes 30 to 40 hours.

When the cylinder door is opened and the poles are removed, they are laid out and given a final visual inspection before being loaded on trucks or railcars for a trip to their new homes.

The poles that were processed immediately following the snowstorm, were quickly planted in the ground, lines attached and power restored to Lane Electric’s appreciative members.