'The weather is our enemy': Manitoba snowstorm shuts highways, closes schools, snaps trees

A storm that has draped southern Manitoba in heavy, sticky snow is causing havoc on highways and knocking down trees and power lines.

Tens of thousands of hydro customers without power across southern Manitoba

Heavy wet snow is weighing down trees and causing branches to break across Winnipeg. (Terry Stapleton/CBC)

A storm that has draped southern Manitoba in heavy, sticky snow is causing havoc on highways, and knocking down trees and power lines.

The Trans-Canada Highway was closed between Brandon and Headingley — one of many road closures — while more than 47,000 Manitoba Hydro customers were in the dark at 1:30 p.m. CT, including over 27,000 in Winnipeg.

Repairs will be delayed because of the treacherous conditions and all the downed trees and branches, Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said. 

"We understand completely people's frustration and the inconvenience to this. We are working as quickly as we can and as safely as we can to restore power as soon as possible," Owen said.

"But the weather is our enemy."

Lane Gibson sent this photo to CBC of an oak tree that fell onto his home on Winnipeg's Kingston Crescent. (Submitted by Lane Gibson)
Another angle of the oak tree that fell on Gibson's home. (Submitted by Lane Gibson)

The storm arrived so early this fall that most trees are still loaded with leaves, which are now supporting the snow and causing the branches to bear more weight than normal.

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"And they are coming down on our [power] lines," said Owen, urging the public to be careful.

"What we're seeing right now is that a lot of folks are taking pictures and video of downed lines, of sparking transformers, to post on social media, and they're getting too close. It's just not worth it."

Manitoba Hydro and the City of Winnipeg are hiring private contractors to remove the downed branches and trees.

Stephane Dorge posted a video on Twitter of one of those sparking transformers, which then exploded, on Rue Jeanne d'Arc near the hospital in the city's St. Boniface area.

Michaela Porter replied to the tweet, saying she experienced something similar in her neighbourhood.

"That happened in our backyard too! Crazy loud electrical hum and spectacular flames," she wrote. "We'll probably be out of power for a while."

Matt Vinet, a manager at Green Drop, one of the yard maintenance companies contracted to do the work, called the situation "a tree apocalypse."

"I don't mean to be so alarmist, but it looks pretty grim at this point. We're going to see a lot of damage to a lot of trees," he said.

A lot of those trees are part of the city's massive elm canopy, he said.

"And those are the big old trees. It's going to affect a lot of the smaller ones, too, of course but some of the big elms — we're going to have pretty catastrophic damage to irreplaceable trees."

Vinet said he's been working at the job for 2½ decades and has never seen anything like this in early October.

"I've never seen wet snow on trees with leaves still on them. The two just generally don't coincide in our climate," he said. "This is the perfect storm for the [tree] apocalypse."

Anyone coming across a downed line needs to call 911 because it's a public safety matter, Owen said.

A tree limb sits on a vehicle on Spence Street near downtown Winnipeg on Friday. The manager of a yard-care company says he's been working at the job for two and a half decades and has never seen anything like this in early October. (Bartley Kives/CBC)
Storm-damaged trees lie across a road in Winnipeg's Wildwood neighbourhood. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"Emergency officials will get in contact with us, and we will come and de-energize it as quickly as possible."

Owen also advised people to avoid the temptation to try knocking the snow and ice off of their trees, especially if they can't see where the service line is going into a home.

"The risk is you're going to come into contact with the line or break a branch and bring down the line as you're standing underneath it."

In addition to trees toppling around Winnipeg, some traffic lights have come down, while others stopped working.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman has asked people to avoid non-essential travel if possible. He has also suggested that employers consider letting staff go home early.

"That's obviously something, if it could be accommodated, [that] would be helpful. We want to avoid as much travel as possible on the roads," he said.

The city's primary concern is to ensure firefighters, paramedics and police vehicles can travel with ease.

On Wednesday, a Colorado low-weather system moved into Manitoba from the United States.

It has been cutting across the province from the southwest corner into the Red River Valley and northwest toward Berens River.

CBC meteorologist John Sauder expects it to drop as much as 50 centimetres of snow to the west of Winnipeg before it shifts out of the province by Saturday.

Winnipeg received about 10-15 centimetres Thursday, and Sauder expected about the same on Friday. And that should be it, as far as this storm goes. He doesn't anticipate much more than a few flakes on Saturday.

Crews work to cut down trees that snapped under the weight of heavy snow, on Buchanan Boulevard in Winnipeg. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)
A tree limb hangs on a wire on a street in Winnipeg's North Kildonan neighbourhood. (Jillian Taylor/CBC)

Graham Harrison spent part of Friday morning trying to remove a tree that fell on his house on North Drive in Fort Garry around 9 p.m. CT the night before.

He was inside when the tree fell. Fortunately, it wasn't a big tree.

"It was just a thump, but it was loud enough you knew something had happened," Harrison said. "Now, I'm just trying to clear snow off the tree to get the weight off 'cause there's more snow coming.

"All the trees are hardy, but you cannot load them [with snow] like this and expect them to last. But now I've got firewood."

Graham Harrison scrapes snow Friday morning from a tree that fell on his house on Thursday night. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)
Heavy, wet snow is weighing down trees and causing branches to break all around Winnipeg. (Terry Stapleton/CBC)

The storm has also brought strong northerly winds, which are expected to increase significantly on Friday. Gusts could reach 70 to 80 km/h, Sauder said.

"Our issue right now is with the wind picking up and additional precipitation expected, and perhaps colder temperatures," Owen said, asking people to be patient as crews try to get to everything.

"We fully expect, with the weather to persist and even get worse, the number of outages will increase. As we restore one neighbourhood, two more neighbourhoods go down.

"But we're out there."

Sticky, heavy snow has been falling in Winnipeg since Thursday morning. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)
Police direct traffic at Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard on Friday, where traffic lights were flashing on and off. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson