On June 18, a large fire broke out in a rural part of the Modesto Irrigation District service area that burned nine distribution and transmission poles. The fire raced through open areas and was so extensive that it destroyed six homes and crossed three counties in an area near Modesto and Escalon, also jumping the Stanislaus River.
IBEW 1245 line crews stood by while firefighters worked to extinguish the fire, but the crews were later send home because firefighters would not allow them to access the area. When the crews did finally gain access, there was a lot of smoke and ash in the air and fumes from burned poles and vegetation were extremely toxic. The crew members had a physical reaction to the high heat and toxic smoke, resulting in nausea and vomiting. The airborne ash got into equipment and clothing, making breathing very difficult.
Due to the rare occurrence of such conditions, there was no advance planning by the company for conditions the crewa were working under. They were subject to extreme heat, and in some instances workers’ shoes actually melted. The linemen’s attitude to “get the job done under extreme adverse conditions” may have contributed to the greater-than-average exposure.
The crews communicated their concerns to management and requested better off-site staging in a clean area with access to water and food, along with a short rest to eat and recouperate after a break. This rare event was a good learning experience for all, as the dry conditions that exist this summer create the potential for future events that may cause another large fire situation.
–Report by Mike Gomes, IBEW 1245 Health and Safety Committee