Power pole fires leave 3,000 in the dark


by QUITA CULPEPPER / KVUE News and Photojournalist JOHN FISHER


Posted on December 28, 2012 at 7:13 PM

Updated Friday, Dec 28 at 7:21 PM

AUSTIN -- It's a scenario Austin Energy didn't expect. Thousands woke up without electricity Friday morning, after about 50 power pole fires broke out across the city.

When business owner Greg Phea arrived at Austin Rising Fast Motor Cars, his sign was dark.

“All of our systems were down and we had to reboot them all,” said Phea. “We have backup units and all the backups were depleted, so it was out for a while. They're supposed to stay up for six to nine hours. When we don't have power it's really hard for us to conduct business, it's really impossible to do deals.”

Austin Energy said the first power pole fires started around midnight but the majority happened around 5 a.m.

At the height of the outages, approximately 3,000 customers were without power.

Seventeen crews spent hours trimming poles and repairing electric lines. It's a problem the utility has faced before.

“It looks like we had a record number of power pole fires,” said Austin Energy spokesman Ed Clark.

Clark said the drought played a big role.

“Every electric system in America needs a good washing off periodically and we just haven't had one in a while,” he said.

Without rain, dust and dirt build up on the pole's insulators that connect power lines to the poles.

“So overnight you have mist, just enough water to give it body, it tracks over the devices and it creates a pathway for electricity from the power line to the pole and you have a fire,” Clark said.

There are 140,000 power poles across the Austin area. Clark said there's no way to prepare or prevent these kinds of fires from happening. 

Power was restored to everyone just before noon Friday.