Lesson from Major Power Outage: Stay Away from Downed Wires

You don't have to touch a downed power line to get zapped ... it might just reach out and nail you.

Last week's wind-related in Novato was a silver-plattered reminder about how dangerous downed power lines can be. A comment from Battalion Chief Gerald McCarthy of the , who was on the scene of downed power lines in a southern Novato neighborhood the night of May 17, put it in perspective.

"I have been here for 20 years and cannot recall a more dangerous circumstance because of the amount of power involved and the amount of people immediately around the lines," he said.

Power was cut to 8,700 customers — more than one-quarter of the city — then quickly trimmed to 7,000 and finally to about 560 by 1:20 a.m. Friday, Pacific Gas & Electric said. Full service was restored to the remaining customers at 5:45 p.m. Friday, but then the power went out again. The reported Monday that a failed transformer was to blame.

Dozens of people came out of their homes Thursday evening to see the broken transmission pole and downed lines near the intersection of South Novato Boulevard and Sequoia Glen Lane. High winds were the preliminary cause, according to Joe Molica, a spokesman for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

"We are always trying to get the word about absolute safety and how it's of critical importance to keep folks — children, adults and pets — away from a downed power line," Molica said. "Just call us right away and keep away from it. We are grateful no one was hurt."

McCarthy said the broken pole and lines on the ground created a life-threatening hazard that some neighbors might not have fully understood. A person doesn't have to touch a line to get zapped.

"My concern was that we were not able to express how dangerous a situation they were actually in," he said. "These lines can arc three to six feet and come in contact with you. Overall there was about 60,000 volts laying on the ground, and that's a lot of electricity."

McCarthy said the first PG&E technician who arrived at the scene realized immediately that it wouldn't be a normal pole repair job. Specially trained crews who deal with sturdier distribution lines — nearly double as juiced as transmission lines that run between houses — were called in right away.

"They can interrupt power on the transmission level and reroute it around to back-feed and restore service fairly quickly," McCarthy said, "but once they're dealing with distribution levels, they have to do it methodically because the power so much greater and because it can cause so much damage to other areas."

After the initial outage just after 6 p.m. May 17, two Novato fire stations resorted to generator power. Emergency dispatchers received the first call a minute later about the sheared-off pole on Sequoia Glen Lane, so the fire district ramped its response from a single engine crew to a full first alarm, McCarthy said.

A couple of small fires were started by the downed lines, and residents helped put them out. But more residents came out to see the damage, at which time fixing the outage became a much lower priority than getting those people a fair distance away.

"There were dozens of people in very close proximity, and we told the immediately to get away," McCarthy said.

Molica said the incident can be a great learning tool, especially for kids.

"It just points to the absolute importance of keeping away from downed power lines," he said. "We have to repeat it and repeat it and repeat it because it's not necessarily instinctual. Parents have to educate their children about it.

"It's sad because every year these kinds of incidents can lead to tragic situations. Folks need to be aware of the dangers."


Know what to do after an emergency

  • Ensure that everyone is safe.
  • Inspect your building for damage. Do not use electrical switches, appliances or telephones if you suspect a gas leak since sparks may ignite gas.
  • If you smell gas, hear gas escaping, see a broken gas line, or if you suspect a gas leak, evacuate the building. Find a phone away from the building and call PG&E or 9-1-1 immediately. If it is safe to do so, turn off the gas service shutoff valve normally located near the gas meter. Do not shut off the gas service shutoff valve unless you find the presence of any one of these conditions because there may be a considerable delay before PG&E can turn your service back on.
  • If leaking gas starts to burn, do not try to put the flame out. Call 9-1-1 and PG&E immediately. If it is safe to do so, turn off the gas service shutoff valve normally located near the gas meter.
  • Once the gas is shut off at the meter, do not try to turn it back on yourself. Only PG&E or another qualified professional should turn the gas back on.
  • Check for downed or damaged electric utility lines. Never touch wires lying on the ground, wires hanging on poles, or objects that may be touching them. Downed wires may still be carrying current and could shock, injure or even kill if touched.
  • Check for damaged household electrical wiring and turn off the power at the main electric switch if you suspect any damage. If the power goes out, turn off all electric appliances, and unplug major electric appliances to prevent possible damage when the power is turned back on.

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The Diggler May 21, 2012 at 08:21 PM
High winds? Looks more like rotten timber to me.
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr May 22, 2012 at 04:04 AM
PG&E disregard of maintenance obligations, just like San Bruno. Dismantle PG&E and the CPUC, they work for each other not for the rate payers. Underground all power wires, as we were promised in the 1990s.
Brent Ainsworth May 22, 2012 at 05:01 AM
This story now has a link to a fresh story from the Marin IJ about the cause of the extended outage.
Pablo C. May 22, 2012 at 05:04 AM
Tina McMillan May 22, 2012 at 07:07 PM
If we think there may be poles with dry rot residents could contact PGE with their concerns about specific poles. Fixing a problem before it becomes a disaster is paramount. I have noticed trees being trimmed around PGE poles all around town and our street was serviced when there were repeated power outages several years back. Maintenance has been good here, which means we can make it even better. PGE provides well paid jobs to people living throughout the bay area. It provides dividends to public and private sector pension funds. There are other options but for California the biggest players are PGE in the north and California Edison in the south. I think it's throwing the baby out with the bathwater to talk about dismantling PGE and the PUC as the solution to all problems. Since SB375 was passed PGE has increased the purchase of renewables, with the disaster at San Bruno PGE is evaluating all its underground work to protect customers; it is in PGE"s best interests to provide a product safely, efficiently and effectively in order to make a profit and pay its employees and its stockholders. Let's make PGE better before we scramble around to create something new from scratch. Sometimes it just doesn't make sense to start over.


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