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Update: Power restored Downtown after Friday morning explosion exposes thousands to heat

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Power was restored Downtown with parts of the Isthmus still experiencing outages after an explosion and fire Friday morning shut off electricity for tens of thousands of homes and businesses on the hottest day of the year, according to Madison Gas & Electric.

After initially restoring power to all locations, the system experienced an increase in outages because of mechanical issues resulting from returning the system to normal, MGE spokesman Steve Schultz said.

"The restoration process resulted in a fluctuation in the number of customers out of power at a given time," Schultz said. "We're still on a path toward full restoration, and crews continue to work as quickly as is safely possible."

City, county and utility officials thanked the community for working together to address what could have been a hazardous situation. There were no injuries caused by the early morning explosion, and no reports of injuries caused by the excessive heat, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said.

"This is what emergency preparedness is all about," Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said at a 4 p.m. press conference.

The American Red Cross of Wisconsin planned to open a cooling shelter at the Alliant Center at 5 p.m. with dinner and a couple hundred cots available to those in the area affected by the extreme heat and power outage, spokesman Justin Kern said.

Explosion, fire in Downtown Madison

A substation explosion and fire Friday morning at Madison Gas & Electric's main power center left thousands without power.

MGE and American Transmission Co. officials said they had not identified the cause of the explosion as of 4 p.m. They had ruled out the heat as a potential cause because the temperature was below a typical 80 degrees when the explosion occurred.

"We're looking at mechanical issues," said ATC vice president Paul Roehr. "With any piece of equipment they're subject to failure."

Gov. Tony Evers earlier declared a state of emergency in Madison following the massive explosion at a power company substation near Downtown and a subsequent fire at a separate substation near the UW-Madison campus.

"We are grateful that no one has been injured as a result of the explosion and fires this morning," Evers said in the declaration. "I want to thank emergency personnel who responded quickly to contain the situation."

Evers authorized the activation of the Wisconsin National Guard to assist local authorities, if needed.

Schultz said when the fire happened this morning, the substation where the fire took place was taken out of service so firefighters could put out the fire.

"We were able to systematically bring it (the affected substation) back to power," Schultz said.

Explosion and fire in Downtown Madison
Explosion and fire Downtown
Firefighters battle blaze and explosion Downtown
Explosion and fire Downtown leaves thousands without power
Explosion and fire Downtown leaves thousands without power

The transformer explosion and fire Friday morning at MGE's main power center on the near East Side shut down the area as crews responded to the scene.

A witness to the explosion said flames shot 150 feet into the air.

There were no reports of injuries.

About 13,000 customers of the utility were without power as of 8:15 a.m., from Park Street east across the entire Isthmus.

By 1:30 p.m., about 6,000 customers were still without power, according to the MGE website. By 2:30 p.m. the number was down to about 3,500.

MGE President and CEO Jeffrey Keebler said at the news conference that it wasn't known what came first during the main incident, the fire or the explosion.

"We had to turn off the equipment at the substation to fight the fire," Keebler said. "We are doing a damage assessment now."

Madison Fire Chief Steve Davis said it took about 15 to 20 minutes to get the substation de-energized, then 5 to 10 minutes to put the fire out with the foam.

Explosion and fire Downtown leaves thousands without power

Madison Fire department at the scene of a large fire at Madison Gas and Electric Friday, July 19, 2019. STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

Keebler said the fire at the second location was in a substation owned by ATC, but it was unclear if the first fire caused the second fire.

"We are using other power routing options to get power to Downtown," Keebler said.

Evers said the State Capitol has closed, and all non-essential government employees working Downtown should go home for the day.

"Please avoid the Downtown area," Evers said.

Madison Fire Department officials said both fires are under investigation, but neither were believed to have been intentionally set.

Fire units were called at 7:50 a.m. for reports of a massive fire at the MGE substation at 722 E. Main St., with a full structure fire response sent.

Explosion and fire Downtown

A transmission explosion and fire Friday morning at Madison Gas and Electric's main power center on the near East Side shut down the area as crews responded to the scene.

"Firefighters immediately began an aggressive fire attack that kept the fire contained to the immediate area," said MFD public information officer Cynthia Schuster.

Crews used a foam concentrate during the fire attack, due to the unique nature of the fire, and the Truax Fire Department at the airport also was called to the scene to provide mutual aid and additional foam.

"The fire at the substation was knocked down at 8:50 a.m., with no injuries reported," Schuster said.

The second substation fire also was extinguished, with no injuries because of that fire.

The Department of Health Services closed, with staff and the public asked to leave the buildings at 1 West Wilson St., 1400 E. Washington Ave. and 600 Williamson St.

Explosion and fire in Downtown Madison

Traffic conditions along portions of East Washington Avenue were at a near standstill after a fire Madison Gas and Electric disrupted power and disabled traffic lights in downtown Madison, Wis. Friday, July 19, 2019. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL

East Washington Avenue was reopened to traffic at 9:30 a.m., but it would take awhile for the massive backups on adjoining streets to get taken care of.

The fire was put out around 9 a.m., MGE officials said.

Kaya Freiman, corporate communications manager at MGE, said the substation contained equipment from both MGE and the American Transmission Co., a consortium that runs high voltage lines all across the state.

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Anne Spaltholz of ATC said a 69kV-138kV transformer failed.

The power outage came on a day when temperatures climbed into the 90s and the heat index tipped 106 degrees.

UW-Madison opened the Kohl Center on Dayton Street as a cooling center, though it closed by 3:30 p.m.

The campus remained open, with minimal effect from the two substation fires.

"Summer term classes and campus activities are still being held," the Office of the Chancellor reported.

At UW Hospital, some elective surgeries were postponed, even though the power didn't go out, to prepare for a possible increase in volume in the emergency room or operating rooms, spokeswoman Lisa Brunette said. UW Health’s Union Corners clinic on Winnebago Street was closed shortly after the power outage and remained closed as of shortly before noon, Brunette said.

UnityPoint Health-Meriter’s West Washington Clinic is closed due to the power outage, spokeswoman Leah Huibregtse said. “While we have activated our incident command center to monitor the situation, our hospital continues normal operations,” she said.

Capitol Lakes Bayside Care on West Main Street, ARC Community Services on Dayton Street and ARC House on North Paterson Street were impacted by the power outage, said Hannah Mohelnitzky, spokeswoman for the City of Madison Engineering Department.

City officials “are checking on their status” and “working with other sensitive populations,” Mohelnitzky said.

Metro Transit said its main offices on East Washington Avenue are without power, but the call center was able to reopen as of 11 a.m.

A second fire broke out at a substation on North Park Street, near the Kohl Center. UW-Madison police evacuated everyone from the Ogg Residence Hall, 835 W. Dayton St., a short distance from the fire at the Park Street substation just south of the hall.

Police shut down roads in a two-block radius around both areas, police spokesman Joel DeSpain.

Explosion and fire in Downtown Madison

Smoke blocking a closed East Washington Ave. Madison Fire department at the scene of a large fire at Madison Gas and Electric Friday, July 19, 2019. STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

Traffic lights were out all over Downtown and the Isthmus, with police directing traffic.

Freiman said there was no estimated time of restoration of power for the area.

"Crews are working as quickly as possible to safely restore service," she said. "We have no reason to believe the cause of the fire is due to excessive usage from today's high temperatures."

Public Health Madison and Dane County said all businesses, including restaurants, tattoo parlors, etc. that don't have emergency backup power sources need to stay closed until power is restored.

Explosion and fire Downtown leaves thousands without power

The Madison Fire department is at the scene of a large explosion at Madison Gas and Electric Friday, July 19, 2019. STEVE APPS, STATE JOURNAL

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said the power outage at the City-County Building has prompted the building to close for the day, and the Courthouse also was closed for the day.

"The 911 Center has been moved to a backup location," Parisi said. "The central command for the police department is now at the Midtown District."

DeSpain said police services are up and running but the main operations are being conducted from a district station and not from the Downtown central district.

The power outage is affecting operations at The Beacon day shelter on East Washington Avenue.

Program director John Adams said he was at the facility at opening time at 8 a.m. when he saw the fire at the MGE substation and walked down to investigate.

"I wanted to see how close the fire was, for the safety of our folks," Adams said.

Explosion and fire in Downtown Madison

Traffic conditions along portions of East Johnson Street were at a near standstill after a fire Madison Gas and Electric disrupted power and disabled traffic lights in downtown Madison, Wis. Friday, July 19, 2019. JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL

The fire was accompanied by what Adams called a "minor explosion," then the power went out at The Beacon and everywhere else in the area about 10 minutes later.

The Beacon has been extremely busy serving the homeless this week because of the extreme heat, with an average of 240 people using the day shelter.

Adams said staff at the facility are checking with cooling centers around Madison to see where people could be bused, just in case power doesn't come back for awhile.

"We're trying to figure this out and take people to a cool place," Adams said.

The people using The Beacon have been taken to the Madison Central Library which is a cooling center, just as all Madison library branches are being used as cooling centers.

Zane Geyer, a construction worker working on the seventh floor of the Gebhardt Building on East Washington Avenue saw the first explosion, which he called "huge".

"Flames went about 150 feet into the air," Geyer said. "The fire kept getting bigger, and the transformers' oil inside probably fueled it."

Geyer said there were three or four explosions after the first one, as transformers literally blew.

"More stuff (at the substation) just kept getting on fire," he said. "Our whole building shook."

Cindy Stohbusch, 53, said she was at BP station on East Washington Avenue when she head the explosion.

"I heard a huge noise, what I thought was thunder, and it stopped me dead in my tracks," Stohbusch said.

A friend of hers rode a bike down to the scene, and was near the substation when a second transformer blew.

"The transformer explosion blew him back," Stohbusch said.

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