A transformer fire prompted the evacuation of a local store on Sunday and while several firefighters were taken to the hospital, no serious injuries are reported.
According to the Santa Monica Fire Department, four engines, a ladder truck, a hazardous materials team and a battalion chief responded to multiple calls of black smoke emanating from a manhole on the Third Street Promenade at Santa Monica Boulevard at about 6 p.m. on Feb. 7.
Firefighters determined the fire was in an underground, high voltage electrical vault. Heat and smoke were traveling from the fire, via underground conduits, to the electrical room of the nearby Gap store prompting a public evacuation and store closure.
Emergency responders were able to vent the building and isolate the underground vault. The response required the closure of Santa Monica Boulevard for about two hours, but Edison crews were working on site until about 2 a.m. No civilians reported injuries but three firefighters were transported to a local hospital for signs of possible toxic skin exposure after entering the Gap’s electrical room. All three were released about three hours later.
Santa Monica residents have often expressed concern about the quality of the local electrical infrastructure and several casual discussions are underway to brainstorm potential solutions. Some residents have proposed formal complaints to the Public Utilities Commission, some have organized information to facilitate reporting of outages and others have discussed forming a new utility company. While conversations occur on Facebook, at neighborhood groups and at local gatherings throughout the city, no official campaign has been organized to require better electrical service.
According to a report given to the City Council last year, the City’s electrical system is improving in reliability but still falls short from service levels provided in 2011.
Southern California Edison said last year that about 25 percent of power outages were caused by equipment failures. The single largest cause of power outages was animals or vegetation causing a short circuit (about 45 percent of total outages).
The utility company has recently embarked on a capital improvement project that has included replacement of eight underground vaults and rebuilding several circuits. Those efforts are ongoing according to Edison.
David Song with Edison said the company is adapting to new requirements imposed by modern technology and that work in areas like Santa Monica is about more than just maintaining the current system. “We’re equipping it for the future grid that is going to be drastically different from what we had,” he said.
Climate Action Santa Monica (CASM) has been working toward a regional Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) program that would allow municipalities to establish locally owned power companies that provide customers with the ability to choose a rate plan that correlates to the percentage of their energy generated by renewable sources. While a CCA would provide customers with choices in their power provider, it wouldn’t address any shortfalls in infrastructure, as the new company would have to deliver its energy along the same lines currently owned by Edison.
SMFD said residents should be cautious around electricity.
“Santa Monica Fire Department would like to remind the public to be vigilant to electrical problems in our congested Downtown areas, stay away from downed power lines, and dial 911 to report smoke or anything suspicious with our City’s electrical infrastructure,” said SMFD Administrative Captain/PIO Dale Hallock.