Gerald Doane: The transformer fire that fizzled
At the end of January this year it was snowing in our community. Around midnight my wife and I heard a loud bang followed by a power outage as our home generator automatically cranked to life.
As an aside, I cannot tolerate the power shutdowns dictated by high winds, low humidity and high temperatures, so I installed a large kilowatt home generator to compensate for those shutdowns. Other types of emergency power systems, such as solar and power cells, work just as well, all at a high cost to the homeowner.
I got up to adjust our blinking alarm clock and saw light flickering on our bedroom window shades. I opened the shades and immediately saw flames on a power pole about a block away from our home. Flames near the top of the pole where showering down the pole onto the ground below.
I had seen this sort of thing before and knew it was a transformer fire.
I spoke with the fire department by way of a 911 call while I watched from our bedroom window as the transformer continued to burn.
After a 15-minute wait, the fire began to diminish when the fire department arrived. The truck continued past the fire’s location, drove by our house, and ultimately circled around the block where I met them to guide them to the fire’s exact location. But by then the fire had gone out.
During the day I walked to the fire scene where power crews had been working. It appeared a new transformer was installed but signal cables were still on the ground awaiting reinstallation. I noted the pole was relatively free of vegetation, with only one conifer nearby.
The conifer was eight feet from the pole and there was no brush or significant ground cover within 30 feet of the pole, an anomaly in our community, as vegetation surrounds power and signal equipment at almost every turn.
The snow and lack of vegetation prevented this fire from spreading. Thanks to fate, this fire did not occur at a more vulnerable location during a drier time.
Days after the fire, I thought it was time to trim my dogwood tree underneath and next to the nasty overhead power and signal equipment. You know, the poles, lines, switches and transformers near and even attached to my home.
I view such equipment, both power and signal, as a system. It is a system because all the parts are connected, not in an operational sense but in a physical sense. The key element in the system, of course, is the pole. If the pole goes down, the entire system goes down. However, other parts — such as heavy signal lines, supports, connectors, and transformers — if compromised can be threats to the system, as well.
It is April now, and the vegetation on my property is beginning to dry out.
Why am I so concerned about a power and signal system and trimming my dogwood tree? The answer, of course ,is wildfire prevention and all the things connected to wildfires, such as property destruction, insurance rates, taxes and most important, the loss of human, animal and vegetable life.
Most of us have witnessed transformer fires and explosions, downed primary, secondary and service power lines, and downed power poles as the result of high winds, lightning and accidents.
In a previous life, I investigated an accident in which a speeding car, operating in a heavy rainstorm, slid off the roadway and struck a power pole, causing the pole to collapse. The pole struck an oncoming pickup truck, killing its driver instantly. The downed power lines started a fire, which would have gotten out of control save for the downpour. Fate saved a wildfire day again!
Most of us want to beautify our property with vegetation. We also like to use vegetation to hide the ugly things that mar the scenery, and these overhead power and signal systems are certainly ugly. But practicality and threats to our existence often outweigh beauty.
My wife accuses me of wanting to cut down our dogwood tree. Not so, I tell her. I just want its branches trimmed back about four feet so that any part of the tree is at least five feet from any part of the overhead system.
Today we still have those beautiful white blossoms that bloom in early spring. Now that our politicians are considering infrastructure upgrades, why not undergrounding utility systems and be done with this wildfire threat?
Gerald Doane lives in Grass Valley.
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“There is a cult of ignorance in this country … nurtured by the false notion that ‘my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov, 1980.