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Explosions Black Out Heart of Downtown

By Jorge Casuso

July 24 -- It got so hot this weekend you could say Santa Monica literally blew its top.

Two manhole covers near the Third Street Promenade blew into the air after explosions in electrical vaults on Santa Monica Boulevard ignited 15-foot flames and triggered power outages in the Downtown area shortly after 5 p.m. Saturday, Fire Department officials said.

At least 40 businesses bounded by 2nd and 4th streets, Santa Monica Boulevard and Arizona Avenue, including a hotel, lost power, leaving seven people stranded in elevators and setting off at least four alarms, said Battalion Chief Carl Bjerke, who was in charge of the area.

“As of 5 p.m. (Sunday), power had not been restored,” said Bjerke, who speculated most, if not all, of the stores affected remained closed Sunday.

The explosions were set off when a 60,000-volt transmission line likely blew after area businesses and residents cranked up their air conditioners, fire officials said. It took two hours to put out the fire.

“It happens at least once a year, especially in summer, when electrical use is high,” said Bjerke, who has been on the force 20 years. “It’s like plugging too many appliances into an outlet.”

Luckily for the pedestrians and motorists cruising Santa Monica Boulevard between 2nd Street and the Promenade, one cover was bolted down and the other too large to blow far into the air, Bjerke said.

In similar explosions, 70-pound manhole covers have blown “hundreds of feet into the air” and been found “embedded halfway into the asphalt,” he said.

“As you can image, there were a lot of people in the area,” Bjerke said. “It all seemed to happen right away. It’s important to get all of the people out of the way in case another blows.”

Firefighters couldn’t spray water into the underground circuit vaults, so they used chemical extinguishers to put out the fire, which was fueled by the oil in the transformer and the plastic on the wires, according to Bjerke.

“There’s a lot of insulation material down there,” he said.

Southern California Edison crews, who use the vaults as work areas during repair and maintenance work, arrived on the scene at 6:40 p.m., according to fire and Edison representatives.

There were no reports of injuries or damage to properties, fire officials said.

Beat the Heat and Conserve

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