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Ocean ferry carrying propane trucks
The Whatcom Chief ferry shuttles propane trucks and residents to and from Lummi Island.
C magazine

Propane fuels island life

A balance of timing, skill and logistics keeps Lummi Island residents powered with propane.
Megan Gosch
Mar 18, 2024

You won’t find a gas station or traffic light on Lummi Island. There’s no supermarket, auto repair shop or hospital and picking up a prescription is a two-hour round-trip.

Like many rural communities across the Pacific Northwest, accessing everyday basics calls for extra time and thoughtful planning, but living on an island adds another level of complexity. Whatcom Chief, a small but mighty 20-car ferry, is a lifeline connecting islanders to services and resources on the mainland, including propane.

“There’s no running out to grab something you forgot earlier. Nothing gets here by accident, and we don’t take conveniences for granted,” says John Granger, longtime Lummi Islander, CHS propane customer and assistant fire chief for the island. “We’re thankful to work with vendors like CHS who keep us supplied with the essentials — and propane is essential out here.”

Where islanders once used heating oil, kerosene and lumber to heat homes, power appliances and fuel generators, they now rely on propane. The CHS Northwest team boards the ferry each week to deliver the gallons that keep the island’s homes, fire house, library and general store humming.

“Delivery to the island comes with some unique challenges, but we do what it takes to ensure our customers have the supply they need,” says Doug Palmer, CHS Northwest energy operations supervisor based in Lynden, Wash. “We never want to leave anyone in a bind.”

Graphic of upper Washington state peninsula

Embracing propane delivery bottlenecks

Lummi Island is just a mile off the Washington coast, but delivering propane to the island poses unique logistical hurdles.

While Whatcom Chief makes dozens of trips each day for residential passengers, vehicles carrying propane, fuel and other sensitive materials are limited to two crossings per week.

Propane and fuel deliveries are made on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with just one designated trip back to the mainland, and vendors must be prepared to share the ride.\

“You have to consider weight and size, and the ferry can only fit six bobtails at a time,” says Palmer. “We can’t bring an unlimited supply, so we must embrace our constraints and get strategic. The best thing we can do is plan ahead. Every delivery starts with a solid game plan.”

Propane truck at ferry dock area

Facing strict space and weight limits on Lummi Island’s ferry, CHS Northwest relies on Auto Fill data to plan deliveries around customer needs.

CHS Auto Fill program streamlines propane delivery

Islanders are encouraged to enroll in the CHS Auto Fill program, which monitors the amount of propane left in a customer’s tank and tracks use over time.

Lummi Island propane delivery at a glance

  • Propane delivery to Lummi Island begins at CHS Northwest energy facility in Lynden, Wash.
  • Drivers make the 25-mile trip to Gooseberry Point, where propane bobtails are loaded onto Whatcom Chief ferry for a ride across the bay.
  • Drivers must complete their deliveries in less than four hours to secure their spot on the return ferry back to the mainland.

“We aim to have as few call-in customers as possible on the island because if they wait too long to call us, the ferry may not allow us back out for two to five days,” says Sofie Brown, CHS Northwest energy sales coordinator. “With Auto Fill, we can keep an eye on their propane levels and they won’t need to panic or call in frantically about running out.”

The CHS Northwest team uses program data to predict how much propane each customer will need and when. Each morning, Brown confirms customer tank levels, cross-references with historic use data and builds a delivery plan for the team’s next trip to the island.

While residential customer tanks may typically be kept at a 40% or 45% fill rate, the CHS Northwest team aims to keep community resources like the island’s fire house filled at a higher rate to ensure there are no supply issues should an emergency arise.

“With the Auto Fill monitoring system, our 1,000-gallon tank at the firehouse is always topped off — especially in the winter,” says Granger. “It’s a relief knowing we’re taken care of and can focus on keeping residents safe.”

Brown and her team also ensure customers are covered through the dry dock season. Each year, ferry service is suspended for several weeks to complete key maintenance and repairs. The shutdown typically takes place in late summer when home heating needs are at their lowest, but Brown and her team work well in advance to ensure customers have enough gallons to see them through the service outage.

“This is where our historical data comes into play,” says Brown. “We can’t deliver extra gallons all at once, but we can look back through our records to understand how much customers are likely to need and gradually build them up to that level before service goes offline.”

Propane truck backing down driveway
Maneuvering down the island’s narrow, winding paths poses an added challenge for Chris Arnold and other drivers already tight on time.

Prepared to pivot

Choppy waters, branches and brush, narrow gravel roads and flooded pathways are all in a day’s work for CHS Northwest propane delivery driver Chris Arnold, who must be prepared to safely navigate any delivery scenario once he crosses the bay and arrives on Lummi Island.

High tides and turbulent storms can cause rocky ferry rides, felled branches and impassable roads, while winter storms create precarious driving conditions, since plowing and salting are occasional services on the island.

“It can get hectic to deliver when the weather’s bad, but the bigger issue comes with the tight driveways you need to access to reach propane tanks,” says Arnold, who draws from nearly 20 years of experience to maneuver the many narrow paths that dot the island.

“It takes skill to back bobtails down tight pathways and navigate sharp angles. Trees and brush can create blockades and damage our trucks.” In some cases, Arnold takes action to clear branches that pose an immediate threat.

The CHS Northwest team uses a safety-first approach for staff and customers. New customers are educated on their equipment, safe operation and delivery logistics. The team also works with the island’s fire department to ensure emergency personnel are well-trained in the event of a propane-related emergency, and safety concerns ultimately determine if and when deliveries can be completed.

When he encounters potential risks, Arnold notes he assesses each scenario carefully before delivering and won’t hesitate to skip a stop on his route if safety becomes a concern. “If you pass someone up, they might be entirely out of propane by the next time you’re able to make a delivery. Wait too long and you risk missing your ride.”

Arnold’s delivery routes are planned to ensure he can travel across the nine-square-mile island and back in time to catch the only return ferry.

“Once you’re on the island, the clock is ticking,” Arnold says. “If you get stuck while you’re on your route, you will literally miss the boat. A bobtail stuck on the island can have a domino effect for future deliveries, so it’s critical to keep moving and stay on track.”

“Our goal is to make sure our island customers have the fuel they need,” says Palmer. “We’ll tackle the challenges as they come to provide them with a reliable supply from a partner they can trust. That’s what we’re here to do.”

Whatcom Chief – a Lummi Island lifeline – by the numbers

  • 36 - Crossings completed every day.
  • 1.1 - Miles from the Washington state mainland to Lummi Island.
  • 6 - Propane trucks allowed at once.
  • 2 - Weekly ferry crossings allotted for propane deliveries.
  • 20 - Passenger vehicles allowed at once.
  • 1962 - The year the Watcom Chief began service.

Check out the full Winter 2024 C magazine with this article and more.

Learn more about CHS propane.

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