September 22, 2005


I was sitting in my office when I heard what sounded like a transformer exploding. It was about 1:15PM.

“Wow! Anyone else hear that?” I yelled out to the rest of the building.

I got up and walked into the hallway. There was no one else in this part of the building.

Always curious, I put my work aside and strolled out the back door. We have power lines that run behind our office, between us and some of the dorms. I believe they feed the campus, but we don’t get our power from them.

As I looked up, I couldn’t see any damage on the lines. But there are a lot of them. Eventually, I heard some crackling, which I took to be the transformer somewhere spitting sparks, as they sometimes do.

But I still couldn’t see it, looking up. The sound was coming from the ground, near a fenced-in piece of equipment with “High Voltage” written on it. I thought “gee - if the sparks fall there, that brush will catch fire.”

That’s when I smelled the smoke. Then saw the smoke. Then thought, “Ah. It IS a fire.”

I sprinted back to the office (a matter of only about 100 yards or so) and dialed the switchboard on my phone. After getting the automated voice, I dialed through to the operator.

“UMass Dartmouth.”

“Hi, I think I just saw a brushfire starting on campus.”

“Where are you?”

“128 Chase Road.”

“I’ll connect you.”

To where, I was wondering. I guessed the Campus Security dispatcher. I was right. But it took a while to get connected. The operator kept trying to transfer me, but kept getting me and me alone back on the line. I think she was nervous.

Suddenly, there was a blast of noise in my ear as she connected me to the dispatcher. I could barely her the operator as she told me to report my emergency.

“Hi - I think a transformer exploded and started a brushfire out here near the access road to 128 Chase Road.”

“The access road?”

“Yeah, behind the police office.”

“Is it still burning.”

“Well, I can’t see it from my office, but it was smoking and I didn’t think I should hang around and watch it get bigger. I thought someone might need to know as soon as possible.” (Would I have called if the fire had gone out?)

“We’ll send someone to check it.”

“OK.” I wanted to say: “Send a fire truck, because by the time the police get here, the flames are going to be jumping.” But, I didn’t. “click

I grabbed my camera and printed back to the fire, to see what it was doing. Now there were visible flames, and the smoldering area was much larger. I snapped a picture and thought “Shouldn’t I try to put it out? With water? Or something?” I dashed back to the office door and then thought “Do I even have a bucket? I’m not sure it’s a good idea getting close to something that has been exploding.” I stopped, and trotted back to the fire, deciding that if I didn’t see anyone responding, I would try to grab something that would hold water.

By now, a police cruiser had pulled up on the access road, and as I approached they began to exit the cruiser, loudly waving me off as if I were completely insane.

“Get the heck out of here! Stay back! Get out of there!”

Um, OK. I was about 30 yards away from where the smoke was now beginning to billow a darker color. I should have thought they’d at least want to know who I was, in the case that it turned out to be arson. So, I ran back to the office and let them handle it, as I heard the fire response sirens wailing in the distance.

I found out that one of the ladder trucks came up 128 Chase Road because the fire was behind 128 Chase and there is an access road that connects to Chase. However, UMass in its infinite wisdom, gated off and chained that road access shut. So the ladder truck had to turn around and go back. Policies of Pure Genius.

When the transformer blew, all the power went off on campus.They canceled all classes for the rest of the day.

I thought it was interesting that they shooed me away without even questioning me. What if the fire had been arson? Don’t they want to know why someone is hanging around, looking at a fire? Good police work. If I had been an arsonist, when I ran away would have been the last they would have seen of me. Of course, it was caused by the transformer, but they didn’t know that for sure at the time.

Later in the afternoon, I walked back up there as an NStar truck pulled away from the box. I snapped a photo of the burned area, which was fairly large, The fire got reasonably far in the short time it was burning. I imagine it would have been pretty damn large if I hadn’t gotten up to investigate. There was nobody else in the area, and there is plenty of brush and combustible stuff. Not to mention students cars which are parked about 30 feet away. It wouldn’t have been reported until someone noticed the smoke.

So, a little bit of excitement today. Apparently, the transformer explosion was caused by some sort of surge. I am hearing rumors that there were other small fires on campus, in a basement or two.

Posted by James at September 22, 2005 1:32 PM
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and power was restored promptly 6 hours later. Ooops, did i say promptly? i meant not even close to promptly. but on the brightside...yay no class!

Posted by: ryan at September 22, 2005 10:23 PM

Good job, Citizen! But, isn't it funny when you repeat something enough it just sort of loses its meaning. "Access Road. Access Road. ACCESS road."

Posted by: ThirdMate at September 23, 2005 7:21 AM

Also, things like:

"There's a fire. YES it is still burning."

I mean, would my answer to that quesiton make any difference. Or make any sense otherwise?"

"There's a fire. No, the fire is not burning. I know most fires burn, but this one, oddly enough doesn't."

"No, the fire is out. That's why I called."

"Yes, the fire is burning. Unfortunately, you're going to have to send assistance."

Posted by: James at September 23, 2005 8:14 AM

When I saw the first picture you posted, the first thing I noticed was the overgrown brush--overgrown to the point where it has obscured the warning sign on the fence. This, as you saw with your own eyes yesterday, is a fire hazard.

NStar, or whoever owns that transformer, has been neglectful in maintaining that area. Hell, they may not even realize this is a problem.

Here's a bit from the NStar website:

11. Vegetation growth in Rights of Way is restricted and controlled by NSTAR Electric. Periodic maintenance is performed to remove uncontrolled brush and trees in the Rights of Way that have the potential to interfere with or damage the lines. The following vegetation restrictions apply on Rights of Way:

a. Trees may be allowed but are restricted to low growing species and must be maintained to less than 8 feet in height.

b. Gardens, lawns and crop fields that do not impede our access in the right of way are permitted. Fruit trees, berry bushes, ornamental shrubs and the like are allowed for cultivation. However, their existence should be brought to our attention because they are not always easily identifiable to our maintenance contractors and may be mistaken for uncontrolled trees and brush.

They also post this: "You may also call our Right of Way Group at 781-441-8206 with any questions."

Posted by: Patti M. at September 23, 2005 8:25 AM

I think they got a different sort of wake-up call yesterday.

I expect that they're going to clean the area up now. If not, I think that warrants a phone call.

Posted by: James at September 23, 2005 8:30 AM

Good for you James! And a little scary that this thing just sort of randomly throws off sparks. That can't be normal, can it?

Posted by: Chuck S. at October 1, 2005 7:09 AM

It doesn't happen often. Have you seen a broken transformer before? Sometimes they overload, or maybe a squirrel messes with one, and they explode.

(Yes, the transformer and the squirrel)

It's not usual that they throw off sparks, but I've seen it happen. And either it happened again this time, or the pieces of ceramic were hot enough to start a fire in the very dry brush.

Posted by: James at October 1, 2005 8:46 AM

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