Underground transformer fire hits Waterford neighborhood

A fire in an underground electrical transformer vault in a Waterford neighborhood caused damage at two homes and affected power to 60 Modesto Irrigation District customers in the area Sunday night.

Crews were dispatched at about 7:30 p.m. to a report of a residential electrical panel smoking on the 300 block of Sawmill Court, said Stanislaus Consolidated Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Rick Bussell.

The first on scene found the outside electrical panel still energized and a fire within the wall behind it, Bussell said. “But the bigger issue was out front street-side, where a high-voltage electrical vault underground was smoking and on fire inside the vault.”

For the minutes until MID could secure the power, firefighters’ efforts were hampered because of the energized electrical panel and wall. “What we had to do was just try to keep it in check by not utilizing water, just using tools and being very careful,” Bussell said. “The crews did a great job on scene; they were very disciplined in their efforts because we have to take it slowly and methodically” when electricity is a factor.

We were very well-protected last night. We felt very safe.

Patricia Jacobs, on the emergency response to the fire on Sawmill Court

While firefighters were tackling the electrical panel and wall fire, “a resident from a different house came up and said, ‘Look across the street – there’s smoke coming from a cable box at another house.’ Sure enough, a cable box was smoking and was energized.”

Firefighters went door to door on Sawmill to ensure power was out at all houses and there was no hidden fire, Bussell said. The two-alarm fire drew six engines, two trucks, two battalion chiefs and two fire investigators, he said. The Ceres and Modesto fire departments assisted Stanislaus.

Sawmill Court resident Patricia Jacobs, 84, said she and her husband were watching TV when they saw “kind of a flash” from a wall outlet in their family room. “We thought, ‘My goodness, what the heck is going on?’ ”

Neighbors may have had a similar experience, because a younger one who “always looks out for us” showed up to turn off the Jacobses’ breakers, she said.

The Jacobses live across the street from the house that had the electrical panel fire. Firefighters went into the couple’s attic to ensure there was no fire. “They checked everything and they didn’t want to stay in our house,” Jacobs said. So the couple visited with neighbors and were advised at about 10 p.m. they could go back inside, she said.

“I think they must have worked overnight,” Jacobs said of MID. “At 5:50 this morning, they came to our door and said we had electricity and they wanted to check our appliances.”

Jacobs said residents of several streets, including Washington Road and South Western Avenue, had their power affected.

MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said most affected customers had their power restored by 9 p.m. The cause of the transformer fire still is being investigated. “We do have issues with some underground transformers and cables at times. It’s not that uncommon,” she said. “Sometimes it can be heat-related,” but she said it’s not yet known if that was the case in this fire.

The electrical panel fire burned a portion of that home’s exterior garage wall, Bussell said, but firefighters were able to keep it from spreading to the attic. The house where the cable box was smoking appeared undamaged, he said, and no other homes were found to have been damaged.

Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327