MADISON, Wis. (WMTV/AP) -- The cause for two reported fires at Madison Gas and Electric substations in downtown Madison Friday morning is still not known.
Courtesy: Brett Marshall
At its highest point, the fires left more than 13,000 people without power in the downtown area on one of the hottest days of the year. The National Weather Service had issued an excessive heat warning for the area Friday, with temperatures in the 90s and high humidity.
By 2:30 p.m. Friday, power was been restored for thousands of customers.
At 4 p.m., MG&E's website said only one customer was left without power, but about 20 minutes later, more than 3,000 customers were without power again. That power outage affected customers on the Isthmus-- from Willy Street to Packers Avenue. Officials said late Friday afternoon to expect intermittent outages through the evening.
“Certainly, if they can’t restore power quickly, then we’ll have to take a look at vulnerable people who live in these areas who need air conditioning, do we need to start getting them out? We’ve trained for these types of things. We’d use Madison Metro [bus service] … At this time, I think the hope is we can get things back to normal in fairly short order before there’s a lot of duress placed on people, particularly the elderly who live in the downtown area," said Public Information Officer Joel DeSpain with Madison Police Department.
Traffic lights were down for nearly eight hours in the area around the two blast sites, delaying drivers on their morning commute and into the afternoon.
“I think just for the time being, please, if you don’t have to come downtown, don’t-- because it’s a mess and you’re not going to be happy because you’re going to be stuck in traffic,” said DeSpain.
The fire at the Madison Gas and Electric main power center on Main Street sent a plume of thick, black smoke over Madison's east side about 7:40 a.m.
“We were getting calls of a potential explosion. I can’t tell you if there was an explosion but a potential explosion, fire and smoke,” said DeSpain.
MG&E CEO Jeff Keebler referred to the incident as an explosion in a joint press conference at 11 a.m. with Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway.
"We had an explosion and a fire in a substation that's jointly owned by American Transition Company and MG&E," Keebler said. "After the initial explosion, and while the fire was going out, equipment was functioning properly, which is why we had lights in the downtown area."
Keebler said they had to turn off the impacted equipment so the fire department could extinguish the fire.
"The fire has been put out, and we are doing damage assessment," Keebler said. "Once we have that damage assessment done, we will have a better estimated time of restoration for customers."
By 4 p.m. Paul Roehr, the Vice President of System Operations American Transmission Company, could confirm the day's heat was not a factor.
"The temperatures this morning, at the time of the incident, were just below 80 degrees, which is very typical for the Madison area," he said. "We’re dealing with mechanical type issues so it’s possible these types of things happen. They are very rare in nature. With any piece of mechanical equipment they are subject to failures at times."
He also said that their crews were focusing on safely bringing the system back and getting customers back into the system strength.
A Second Fire
A second fire at a substation near the University of Wisconsin-Madison prompted the evacuation of Ogg and Smith Halls and the UW-Madison Safety Building. Shelter was available until 6 p.m. at the Kohl Center on campus.
At 9 a.m., Madison Fire officials said the fire on East Main and Blount Streets was knocked down. They also confirmed that no one was injured at either location.
The Madison Police Department also confirmed no one was hurt in a post on its Twitter page.
"There was a second fire that was at the East Campus substation. Those two substations are electrically connected, and based on the data that we have throughout the day, we are confident that the issues at the second substation are largely indicated as being a result of the extensive damage at the first site," said Roehr.
State of Emergency
Gov. Tony Evers declared a State of Emergency for the City of Madison and Dane County. The declaration provides state support during the power outage.
We are asking non-essential state employees headquartered downtown to go home for the day and asking folks to please avoid the downtown area.— Governor Tony Evers (@GovEvers) July 19, 2019
"We are grateful that no one has been injured as a result of the explosion and fires this morning, and I want to thank emergency personnel who responded quickly to contain the situation,” said Gov. Evers. “With the power outages and the extreme heat, I have directed all state agencies to provide assistance and authorized Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, to activate the National Guard to assist local authorities if needed. Keeping folks safe remains our top priority as we continue to manage and respond to this situation.”
Public Health Madison & Dane County has reported that the air quality in the area is acceptable and the City will continue to monitor the conditions.
Officials are asking people affected by the power outage to make plans for the day, and possibly for the night. Rhodes-Conway said she encourages people to take care of themselves, especially if they are in buildings without air conditioning.
"All of our libraries, including Central Library, are open and have power air conditioning," she said. "There are cooling centers throughout the community that are open. The Water Utility Wagon is down on State Street from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. They have water available for folks."
Festival Foods in downtown Madison, located right across the street from one of the fires, donated cold water to police and fire crews on scene.
To fight the fire, the Madison Fire Department needed to use fire fighting foam, the type they use at airport fire departments. It is associated with the contaminants known as PFAS.
It is unclear if the foam used actually contained those chemicals, and it is currently being tested. City officials say there were immediate steps taken to lessen the spread of the water and foam.
Two environmental engineering firms are at the scene and have removed hundreds of gallons of water from the storm sewer in two different areas. They are working in collaboration with the city and Wisconsin DNR. They will also remove some soil as part of the remediation.
Other Business Closures and Cooling Center Info.
The Overture Center for the Arts and many businesses in the State Street corridor and on the Capitol Square closed for the day or temporarily. Other known business closures related to the power disruption included the Department of Health Services offices on West Wilson, East Washington and Williamson Streets; the Wisconsin Historical Museum on North Carroll Street, and the Willy Street Co-Op East on Williamson Street. Wisconsin DMV Customer Service Centers will not be able to issue IDs on Friday.
The Dane County Regional Airport was also been affected by the fire, and its WiFi internet feed and flight arrival and departure information systems are malfunctioning.
UW Health Union Corners Clinic on East Washington is also closed. UW patients who needed urgent care services were told to go instead to the West Towne Clinic, about 20 minutes away.
The Princeton Club offered free day passes to people who needed to cool down in the air conditioning.
Rhodes-Conway stressed that the community was working to protect vulnerable populations.
"The Salvation Army has a plan for families and single women who are homeless in their shelter," she said. "The Beacon Day Center [located near the first fire site] has moved folks to the library downtown, and the Kohl Center is a cooling center until 6 p.m."
Lunch was served at the library in downtown Madison at 1 p.m. for Beacon guests.
West High School cafeteria, Chavez Elementary and LaFollette High, and City of Madison libraries were all open as cooling centers. Pets were not allowed. The Dane County Humane Society staff also offered to house and take care of any pets overnight. People in need were asked to drop off their pets until 7:00 p.m. at the Dane County Humane Society.
This is a developing news story. Stay with NBC15 News for Team Coverage and updates as more information comes into the newsroom.