Fires at two transmission substations in Wisconsin’s capital knocked out power to more than 11,000 customers on a sweltering day, shutting down government buildings, courtrooms and businesses and prompting police to call in additional staff.
An explosion and fire at the Madison Gas and Electric main power center sent a plume of thick, black smoke over Madison’s east side about 7:40 a.m. Friday. A second fire at a substation near the University of Wisconsin-Madison prompted the evacuation of Ogg and Smith Halls and the UW Safety Building. Shelter was available at the Kohl Center on campus.
Gov. Tony Evers declared a state of emergency in Madison and surrounding Dane County. The state of emergency authorizes the activation of the National Guard and directs state agencies to provide assistance.
“Keeping folks safe remains our top priority as we continue to manage and respond to this situation,” Evers said in a statement.
The State Capitol closed, as did the City-County building. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services sent employees home and directed the public to leave the building because of a lack of electricity.
All state court system offices in downtown Madison also closed because of the outage. Director of State Courts Randy Koschnick said Friday the closures include administrative offices and the clerks of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Koschnick anticipated the offices would reopen Monday.
Public access to some court system electronic services, including the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access website and electronic filing in some counties, was also down.
There were no reports of injuries, but residents with no access to air conditioning were advised to be on alert as the National Weather Service issued an excessive heat warning for the area Friday, with temperatures in the 90s and high humidity.
Traffic lights were knocked out throughout the downtown area because of the outage.
“The city is on priority calls only and attempting to facilitate traffic wherever we can,” Madison Police Chief Michael Koval wrote on his blog. “Additional personnel have been summoned in early.”
There was no timetable on when power would be restored, said MGE spokeswoman Kaya Freiman.
“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 officials advised all businesses, including restaurants, that don’t have emergency backup power sources, to close until power is restored.
Zane Geyer, a construction worker working on the seventh floor of the downtown Gebhardt Building told the State Journal he saw the first explosion.
“Flames went about 150 feet (46 meters) 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.