On Jan. 4 around 6 p.m., Halfmoon Bay resident Karen Jackson heard the click of her gas fireplace’s pilot light turn off – she was out of propane, her main source of heat and hot water.
Although Jackson, 67, says she is signed up for automatic refills from Superior Propane when her tank reaches 30 per cent, her last delivery was Nov. 6 before a number of winter storms hit much of southern B.C.
“It’s cold in the house. I have a little electric heater that if I sit by it and put my hands over it, my hands will warm up. [I’m] not wanting to get up in the morning because I know it’s gonna be cold and at least I’m warm when I’m in bed under the blankets,” she told Coast Reporter on Jan. 7. “My concern is with the electricity going out on a regular basis. That happens, I’m really in bad shape.”
Jackson said she was frustrated after speaking with several company representatives throughout the week, and keeping her driveway clear in the meantime. After going without propane since Jan. 4, Superior Propane filled 60 per cent of her propane tank on Saturday, Jan. 8.
“Why is this not being treated as an emergency?” Jackson asked.
Jackson is not the only Sunshine Coast resident who has gone without propane. By Jan. 6, Pender Harbour resident Heather Paget said in an email that she’d gone without propane for five days. For Paget, the snow raised a number of concerns for stranded seniors and emergency services access as well as the delivery of propane.
Bad weather and unsafe road conditions
On Jan. 11, Superior Propane’s vice president of operations, Brian Seppala, told Coast Reporter that the company lost nine out of 17 operational days since Dec. 24 to bad weather and unsafe road conditions.
The company’s Sunshine Coast facility is located on the waterfront in Port Mellon, where supplies are barged in, then delivered by truck.
During the record-breaking snowfall in December and with more snow, a windstorm on Jan. 7 and an atmospheric rain event in January, Seppala said Superior Propane “got blasted pretty heavily.
“The local crews are usually pretty good at helping us out, but with the excessive snowfall that we had, obviously it impacted operations for a full day and a half,” he said. Then the windstorm knocked out power to the Port Mellon plant for nearly 48 hours.
“We’ve been battling with the weather since the 24th. And obviously with the cold weather, there’s more customer delivery requirements,” Seppala said.
In response, Superior Propane barged in more equipment and staff from Vancouver and tasked local help to assist the team.
One of the biggest issues facing the company, Seppala said, is accessing customer driveways, and some of their vehicles getting stuck. Superior Propane’s manager and assistant manager spent several days scoping out driveways the crews could deliver to. The company added temporary propane cylinders to their technician’s four-wheel drive vehicles to act as a short-term solution until the weather breaks and bigger trucks can make the bulk propane deliveries. These can be used for customers, such as seniors who cannot clear their driveways.
On Superior Propane’s website, a service notice states that the company is “experiencing issues with internal systems which may impact some access to services.” When asked how the internal service issues impacted the Sunshine Coast, Seppala said it has impacted the financial and phone systems somewhat, but the operational interruptions have mostly been related to weather.
Prioritizing essential uses
The cold weather across Western Canada also increased call volumes coming into the company, so Superior Propane hired 25 more staff members and reassigned existing staff to work the phones. The company has an automated calling system, but found it had more success if a live person called customers to assess whether they are using propane as primary or auxiliary heat.
“We are providing service to all essential customers and that includes primary residential heat, obviously schools, hospitals, any institutional scenarios like that. We are obviously rationing on other customers or deferring deliveries on other customers that are not primary or essential. So if you have a decorative fireplace, you’re probably not on the high priority list today,” Seppala said.
The company also purchased snow removal equipment for the Port Mellon location, but still relies heavily on Capilano Highway Services to clear the highway and roads.
If the weather cooperates, Superior Propane should be able to take care of critical deliveries this week and resume normal operations next week, Seppala said on Jan. 11.
“This week’s a real critical one for us, and we’re asking customers to do what they can to allow us access to get into their facilities and into their properties,” he said, adding that customers can also upgrade and expand the capacity of their storage system.
The vice president of operations also said he’s heard of people in the community chipping in to help others with snow removal.
“Every bit helps, especially when we’re dealing with some of these extreme colder temperatures that we’ve had recently,” he said.