What Should You Do When There’s a Fire on the Power Lines?
Have you ever seen a stretch of power lines crisscrossing the sky? Depending on your point of view, you may consider them eyesores or sights to behold. Some hate seeing those thick cables marring the horizon, while some feel awed by the thought of the thousands of volts running through the wires.
Those power lines play a vital role in our lives as they carry electricity from the power plants to homes and businesses. Without those cables, we won’t have electric power. However, because of the high amount of electricity passing through the lines, they’re potential safety hazards. Under the wrong conditions, the overhead power lines can cause significant damage. That’s not surprising because high-voltage lines often carry 345,000 volts. For reference, 50 volts can be lethal.
What are Power Flashes?
Power flashes are often referred to as exploding transformers. However, that’s a misconception, as transformers are rarely behind those fearsome flashes. Instead, a power flash is caused by electrical discharges from damaged electrical equipment, usually downed or severed power lines. These flashes can occur anywhere in the power grid where live wires can come in contact with each other or with grounded objects, even with the earth itself.
Causes of Power Flashes
Power flashes are hot and intense but they usually last for only a few seconds. Still, they are very destructive events, especially to electrical equipment, and can lead to power outages. A wooden telephone or utility pole can catch fire from power flashes.
Several events cause power flashes, and some are beyond anyone’s control.
Power flashes from damaged equipment can result from human error. For example, a car striking a utility pole can down power lines. A fallen power line can short circuit leading to a power flash.
Aside from human-caused events, weather-driven events are by far the more common producers of damage to power equipment that leads to power flashes. Extreme weather often results in downed power lines and toppled utility poles triggering short circuits that sometimes spark off massive power outages.
Let’s look at some of those events that can damage electrical equipment.
Tornadoes, Hurricanes & Strong Winds
Strong winds caused by extreme weather can affect power lines directly or indirectly. Intense winds from tornadoes and hurricanes can knock over trees that sometimes fall on power lines or topple utility poles. Airborne debris, such as large branches or roofing equipment, can strike electric lines causing a short circuit.
Lighting is another weather event that triggers power flashes and short circuits. It can strike energized power lines, and the high voltage it carries can lead to a flashover on the power line or other electrical equipment. A flashover occurs when the voltage surge exceeds the power line’s insulation strength.
A direct lightning strike can cause significant damage, not just to the power line but to other electricity transmission infrastructures, such as line conductors and towers.
Crippling ice storms, which produce more than an inch of ice, can wreck electrical equipment, leading to widespread outages. that sometimes last for days. The weight of the ice on a power line can bring it down, along with the power poles. Ice-laden trees can also fall on overhead power lines, causing the lines to snap.
Like ice, heavy snow can result in power arcs and wreak havoc on electricity transmission equipment. A power line that gets covered with snow is prone to breaking due to the additional weight. Snowstorms can topple trees or make heavy branches fall on power lines.
Ground shaking during an earthquake can devastate all kinds of infrastructure. These include equipment associated with electrical transmission and distribution. Violent shaking or ground ruptures can result in power arcing or short circuits from moving or collapsing lines and poles.
Power Flashes vs. Lightning
A power flash occurs due to arcing from damaged electrical equipment. Meanwhile, lighting is an electrical discharge caused by imbalances between a storm cloud and the ground. A power flash comes from artificial structures, while a flash of lightning is a work of nature.
The two may look the same, but they’re not. Here’s how to identify if you’re seeing a power or lightning flash.
- Take note of the color: The color of the flash is the most reliable way to determine what’s causing the event. Lightning has a distinctive blue-white color. This is caused by the light coming from the electrons as they drop back to their original energy states after the discharge. A lightning flash is not green or turquoise, or red. So a flash in the sky that changes color is often a power flash.
- Take note of the duration: A lightning flash lasts very briefly. In most instances, it’s gone in the blink of an eye. Meanwhile, power flashes tend to glow and linger for a few seconds.
- Take note of where it comes from: Lighting lights up the clouds while a power flash often emanates from a single point on the ground.
- Take note of the sound: Thunder usually comes after a flash of lightning unless the bright illumination results from a lightning strike. Meanwhile, a loud buzz or what sounds like a gunshot accompanies power flashes.
Safety Tips on Downed Power Lines
After an extreme weather event, it’s not surprising to encounter toppled utility poles and snapped electric lines. Keep in mind that high voltage electricity may still be flowing in those damaged equipment. If you see a downed power line, practice power line safety and exercise extreme caution. In case the downed line is outside your home, the safest way to deal with the problem is to stay inside and contact the electric company.
Here are other tips on what to do if high winds or storms have knocked over some poles in your area.
Stay alert and watch for damaged lines after a severe storm
A downed wire is a common occurrence after intense storms. So stay alert if you go out and watch out for snapped or downed lines. They may be wrapped in trees, hidden behind tall weeds or lush vegetation, or in streams and puddles, making them hard to spot.
Keep away from downed power lines
Assume that the downed power line is live and dangerous. Even if the damaged wire isn’t buzzing or sparking, it may still conduct electricity and can be lethal, so avoid touching it. Power lines often carry more than 500,000 volts, and touching one can lead to severe injury, even death. Maintain your distance, at least 20 feet away from pole-to-pole lines. Overhead power lines aren’t insulated like the wiring in your house, so treat them with extreme caution.
Shuffle your feet when moving away from a downed line
If you chanced upon a fallen power line, move away from it as carefully as possible. Keep your feet close together on the ground, and don’t lift them the way you usually would when walking. Instead, shuffle off slowly. A live wire that touches the ground disperses electricity. If you raise your feet, they could become pathways for the electricity to travel through your body and back to the ground, potentially causing severe injury or even death.
Stay inside your car if it comes in contact with a fallen wire
If your vehicle touches a fallen wire, don’t get out. Stay in the car, as the power line may have electrified the ground. If you need to exit the vehicle because of fire or other danger, jump away and refrain from touching the vehicle and the ground at the same time. Land on both feet and shuffle away, taking great care not to lift each foot as you move.
Don’t touch metal fences
A live wire touching a metal fence can cause severe injury to anyone who comes in contact with it. So after a storm, steer clear of metal fences. Even one that’s several meters away from a fallen wire can still conduct enough electricity to cause severe electric shock.
How do you put out a power line fire?
Never use water to put out a power line fire. Water conducts electricity, and you could get electrocuted if you come in contact with the water. Moreover, the water might even cause the fire to spread. Use an appropriate fire extinguisher (one for a Class C fire) if you have one.
What happens if a transformer catches fire?
An overload in the electricity going into a transformer or overheating of its insulation fluid can cause a transformer to burst into flames. Left uncontained, it can result in the partial or complete loss of the electric substation. It will often lead to power outages to residential homes and businesses connected to it.
What does arcing out mean?
Arcing out means that an electrical current jumps a gap in a circuit as it moves from one conductive point to another. It can happen wherever electricity is flowing. The heat and energy from an arcing current can cause injury or death to anyone who comes in contact with it.
What is a safe distance to live from power lines?
Several studies link living near power lines with some health conditions or diseases, although not all studies show conclusive results. However, to play it safe and minimize the risks posed by the electromagnetic fields emanating from those lines, living a safe distance from power lines would be wise. The recommended distance from high voltage electric lines is 200 meters.
A sparking power line is a safety risk. As such, if you see one, treat it with great care. Put as much distance between you and the electric cable to avoid getting electrocuted. Keep in mind that fallen wires are common after severe weather events, so be on the lookout for such damages.
Call 911 or the electric company if you see a downed power line and report the emergency. Even if the damaged wire isn’t sparking, assume that electricity still flows through it. Thus, you should avoid touching the wire or any object that is in contact with the fallen line.