Preparedness Corner
September 2002
By Paul Vircsik

Hi Neighbors,

Here is something to charge your thought process.  While watching Marlene shut down her computer I noticed that the little red light under her optical mouse was still lit.  I already know that when an electrical item’s switch is turned off the electricity is still flowing from the wall to the item through the cord.  But the item does not receive juice past the switch.  I thought.  After further investigation I found that the electricity was actually going through the computer, around the off switch and to the mouse.  Huh! This poses yet another conundrum for those of us trying to conserve on utility bills and prevent short circuits should the wires be compromised.  Now without an amp meter I can’t check how much current is going through the cord but a short’s a short.  Do I want to flip the switch on the surge protector, or pull the plug from the wall every time I shut down? No, I do not.  But I am now aware of the voltage use and although slight, the hazard.  How many other electricity robbers are in our homes spinning the meter when in the off position? I am on the hunt.  Radios, TV memories for clocks and settings, etc, etc.  Then I saw the article in “Colorado” from San Isabel.  5% of your consumption is from these little goblins.  Thirty dollars a year average and $1 billion annually from all consumers.  That’s a lot of juice!

During a wildland or any fire, more than just the land or property can be effected.  Think of all the utilities below and above ground that can be disrupted.  Gas, propane, electricity, and water.  Electrical wires above ground are my biggest concern.  As the lines heat up, they sag, coming closer to the ground and your head.  When they break the lines don’t always go dead.  They short to the ground causing a huge electrical discharge to whatever it sparks to.  Pretty but dangerous.  Then, a signal is sent to the substation that the electricity is not passing through.  The substation does not know why or where, and after a small period of time (set by the utility company) the electricity is automatically turned back on re-energizing the broken line, which again shorts to ground.  This process will continue until a real person shuts down the service to that particular pole.  Then, electricity will be re-routed from the other direction automatically, which again re-energizes the broken line until a real person shuts down the opposite direction.  The moral of the story is do not go near downed power lines.  An area of conductivity on the ground as wide as 50 feet can be energized each time the line sparks.  The area can be greater if the ground is wet.  The fire department knows this and will let the area around the pole burn out and protect or scratch a control line outside the area of conductivity until the wire has been shut off.  Each pole has a number stamped on a label nailed to the pole.  You can call the utility company and let them know the next pole down’s number so they can get started towards the problem area.  You also stay safe this way by reporting pole away from the conductivity area.

Also during a fire the smoke can become an electrical hazard.  If the fire is burning near the power lines, smoke in and around the wires can build static electricity and spark through the smoke to the ground.  Hopefully you are not walking under the wires when this happens.  It could definitely cause a bad hair day.

Lastly, as the Missionary Ridge fire raged east of Durango this year an experiment was taking place.  Employees of a fire safety company were sent to homes that had known defensible space around them.  During the severe fire storms the homes were untouched by the fire even though the surrounding forest burned.  The employees staying at the homes found refuge inside, coming out to remove embers that fell on decks but otherwise there was no damage to the homes.  This proves what many preach all the time, that defensible space works.

See you all soon,

Meet the author: Read about Paul Vircsik's background