Fallen pole suspected as fire’s spark

       As the owners of Johnson Heating & Plumbing sought unmarred valuables this week amid the rubble of the wind-whipped Jan. 5 fire that destroyed their building at 2190 Busch Ave, Colorado Springs officials declared it an “accidental electrical fire” but were still unsure exactly how the estimated $2 million blaze started. Firefighters shoot water onto the Johnson Heating and
Plumbing building, 2190 Busch Ave., in the early stages of
the wind-aided fire that eventually reduced it to rubble Jan.
5. A fallen power pole, shown leaning against the northwest corner of the building, is being investigated as a cause of the blaze.
Westside Pioneer photo
       A total of 44 firefighters, including crews from the Westside's Stations 3 and 5, fought the fire, which started just after noon and still had hotspots into the wee hours of Jan. 6. The conflagration was contained to the Johnson property.
       Also on the scene were Colorado Springs Utilities crews, who had to wait until the fire was sufficiently controlled (late Jan. 5) to start replacing a power pole that had fallen against the west side of the Johnson building that morning and triggered part of an electrical outage that affected a total of about 3,500 customers on the Westside. Some of those customers were out until almost 2:30 a.m. Jan. 6 when a replacement pole was put on line, according to Patrice Quintero of Utilities.
       The downed pole, situated off the street between the Johnson property and its neighbor to the west (Bradley Excavating), may also have sparked the fire. “We know the cause was accidental electrical, but we're trying to figure out how and where it started,” Quintero said. “Was it the pole? In all likelihood it was, but we're nailing it down now, checking all things inside and out.”
       The saga began at 11:11 a.m. Jan. 5, when a Colorado Springs Police officer reportedly found the pole leaning to one side, but saw no signs of forced entry and no indication of a fire. The officer had responded because of a burglar alarm, a Fire Department press release states. The alarm's source is still unknown, but could have been caused by the wind, according to Lt. Skip Arms of the CSPD.
       It was later determined that the pole's shift had caused one of the two main outages in the Westside area at 11:05 a.m. (The other started at 11:39 a.m. when the wind blew a tree onto a power line at 27th and Robinson streets.) As a result, Springs Utilities trucks were in the neighborhood when a citizen flagged one down on Busch Avenue at 11:57 a.m., reporting that a power pole (the same one the police officer had seen) had now fallen down against the Johnson building.
       Stopping to check the situation, the two Utilities crew members additionally found a breaker box on the west side of the building that was so hot it was “glowing,” Quintero said. A crew member used a fire extinguisher on the box and called 911.
       “Firefighters arrived at 12:10 p.m. and made an initial interior fire attack and searched the building for occupants,” a Colorado Springs Fire press release states. “Firefighters were quickly pulled from the interior due to potential electrical hazards and extremely high winds rapidly changing the fire conditions. Once it was determined that there were no life safety issues and the building integrity was compromised, firefighters attacked the fire from outside to ensure their safety.”
       Julie Stone of the Fire Department elaborated that the initial crews discovered that fire was in the walls and moving to the ceiling, and this added to their concerns about fighting the fire from inside.
       There is an upbeat side story, Quintero pointed out. That was the assistance provided to Fire and Utilities crews throughout the day by Bradley Excavating, 2220 Busch Ave. Run by Bradley Grubaugh, the business is a family operation, including his wife Julie, sister Lindy Fury, father Larry and (when she's not at college) daughter Kali.
       The Bradley family members, helped by shop foreman Ray Lucas, bought large quantities of burgers, brats and fruit, turned on a propane-powered grill, and kept the crews fed. They also brought beverages to the firefighters and let them into their building (lit with candles because of the outage) to get out of the cold or to use the restrooms.
       Bradley Grubaugh said it was nothing, really, that he and his people were just very grateful and appreciative. “You don't realize till they're right in front of you, what a job they do,” he said. Added his sister, “We were glad to give to those who were giving to us.”
       Despite lack of heat or power in their building, the Grubaughs stayed until about 3:30 a.m. Jan. 6, offering a haven for Utilities workers who were struggling with the replacement of the downed pole.
       The support was greatly appreciated by weary crews. “It's the thing you kind of hope neighbors will do,” Quintero said.
       Grubaugh expressed regret for the misfortune of the Johnsons, whose family-run business, specializing in residential plumbing and heating, has been next door since owner Rick Johnson built his facility (technically three buildings, according to the Assessor's Office) seven years ago. Grubaugh said he has worked with Johnson on projects going back 13 years.
       The Johnsons themselves could not be reached, but Grubaugh said Jan. 8 he had talked to Rick and they are doing the best they can under the circumstances, remaining optimistic as well as busy. “They had crews out working today,” Grubaugh noted.
       He added that the Johnsons have been able to find some things that weren't ruined in the fire, including vehicles in the building's lower level. However, Johnson told him the problem with the vehicles was not having their keys, which had probably been lost in the flames.

Westside Pioneer article