By Marianne Lincoln
It was late evening, January 18, 2023. Connie Wilbur was sitting in her rec room recliner when, “Boom!” the sound of an explosion ripped through the room. The power went off, so she grabbed a flashlight and a coat and took a look outside. Things looked basically normal, but in the daylight, there was far more to be learned.
The Wilbur home is next door to the new Cross Park. In the front yard next to Military Road, and between the park and the house, is a high-tension power tower that belongs to Tacoma Public Utilities (TPU). The neighborhood actually is part of Elmhurst Mutual Power and Light. The tower had arced, and the voltage ran into the chain link fence and through the ground, blowing out the house electric meter, welding parts of the fence together, and continuing to burn aluminum where the garage gutters touched the ground. The voltage continued to the house next door that was formerly the Cross’ home. The voltage also struck the railroad tracks, causing the crossing guard rails to drop, damaging the signals.
Connie spent some very cold days in her home making phone calls to Elmhurst, insurance and contractors to bring her home back online. There were scorched outlets and appliances she was trying to get repaired. When I visited, she had plenty of photos on hand of the damage cause by the huge surge. She had a lot on her mind, just to get her home back in order, so I took on the harder part or notifying other key officials that needed to know about this anomaly. I soon learned how difficult it is to get through to anyone from TPU.
First, I called Elmhurst Mutual and left a message. It was Saturday, so they returned my call on Monday. Elmhurst was dealing with the local lines, but admitted they had no control over the high tower. I called TPU. They only list one phone number. I tried a couple different options, but finally just spoke to billing because they answer their phones. The representative said she would forward my inquiry to communications and I would get a return call.
The next day I received a call from Ken Clark in claims. I explained I was not making a claim, but told him what had occurred. He said he would refer me to communications. In three more days, I had not heard anything back.
During that time, I contacted the Pierce County Parks Director and told her what had happened. My concern was if this bolt of voltage had gone the other direction in the ground, it was not far before it could hit the playground of the new park. She was appreciative to know of the issue, because this was not actually the first time the tower had arched. In about 2008, Pat Wilbur had been in his front yard and actually witnessed a bolt coming from the tower and striking his fence.
I continued to attempt to call someone else from TPU, but was hitting dead ends with the limited phone number they publish. So, I looked up the Utilities Board. Lo and behold, they were having a meeting Wednesday night!
On Wednesday, February 8, I took a few photos and got them printed and headed to the meeting. I was sitting in a completely empty auditorium. It really was their meeting night. I looked up the board email, wrote a letter and attached the photos. Then I headed home.
The next day I received an email from Brooke, the Board assistant, first apologizing about the meeting. Apparently, there was a 6 p.m. study session and only 5 minutes of agenda, so the Board had finished up everything by 6:05pm and left the office. I got there at 6:20 p.m. for the 6:30 p.m. meeting that had already taken place. So much for public input.
Later, I received a call from Jackie, who did not leave her last name, but she did say the magic words, “I am letting the Transmission and Distribution Department know they need to go check it out.” She also said she was going into a meeting, so I was unable to call her back when I got the message.
Now, I am waiting to hear the results of that tower inspection. The high voltage Bonneville power lines were built so long ago, it is not unreasonable to think they may need some maintenance.
I hope all the kids in the park continue to be safe. None of us need to experience this again. I also wish Connie and her neighbor the best of luck getting all the repairs done and insurance company cooperation.
And for the Tacoma Public Utilities Board, I will visit again and show up 30 minutes early, because you really need to know sometimes the public really does need to attend your “public” meetings.
The photo on the cover of this article is not from this location, it was part of an online video on power surges and arcing lines. But I wanted you to see how powerful and frightening they are. Here is that video link to give them credit.
UPDATE: The tower inspection revealed a cracked insulator that I was told was replaced. I do hope this exercise also creates some other procedural changes.
2 Comments Add yours
The event was more likely a lightning strike than a discharge from the power lines.
The photo was not this event. There was no lightning that evening. After visiting the Utilities Board meeting, they sent a transmission crew out and found a cracked insulator.