It was about 2:50 p.m. on Jan. 19 when Kevin Falkman opened the sliding patio door and walked outside with his dog into the backyard of his home in the 9500 block of Garfield Avenue in Brookfield.
About an hour and a half earlier, he’d called ComEd. The power lines — which frame Falkman’s house on three sides — were buzzing. Earlier that day the power had gone out twice, a common enough occurrence in the neighborhood. The second outage was planned by ComEd at about 1 p.m., to repair damage done to a nearby wire by “wildlife.”
Even though it was daylight, Falkman was startled by a flash of white light and an explosion. It was one of the power lines that runs through the north/south alley next to his home. And it was falling towards him.
“It came down within six feet of me,” said Falkman.
His first instinct was to run, which he did. As he rounded the far side of his home and into the front yard, Falkman said he saw flames about 12 to 15 feet high, shooting up from behind his house.
The fire was so hot that it incinerated some of the concrete patio stones in Falkman’s backyard, which is enclosed by a brick wall.
“It’s very fortunate it fell in an area where there’s the brick retaining wall. It scorched right through those [patio stones],” said Brookfield Fire Chief Patrick Lenzi, who added that firefighters recorded the ground temperature there at about 600 degrees Fahrenheit.
“I’m kind of scared to be here,” Falkman said.
That might seem like an overstatement, but Falkman says it isn’t. After all, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. It’s the second time since June 2011 that a downed power line has started his property on fire and the fourth time since June 2011 that a high-voltage power line has fallen either on or within a few feet of his property.
On June 9, 2011, Falkman’s wife was at home at about 8:30 a.m. when a power line fell onto the couple’s front lawn, not too far from the front of the house. The resulting fire burned a small tree and turned a good portion of the front lawn to carbon.
“To have it happen a second time [last week] is nerve-wracking,” Falkman said. “I was shaking.”
Then on June 8, 2014, Falkman’s next door neighbor, John Marino was mowing the grass on the parkway in front of his house when a power line overhead exploded in a flash of white light.
It fell on the ground about 10 feet away. According to Marino, a retired Brookfield police sergeant, “The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I could feel tingling in my legs.”
The surge traveled down a diagonal wire stabilizing the utility pole and started the grass on the parkway in front of Falkman’s house on fire.
“It ripped the crap out of the lawn,” said Marino. “This thing just destroyed the parkway.”
A section of that stabilizing wire dangled from the utility pole from the time of that incident until last Friday, when a ComEd worked snipped it off as part of the repair they made that day.
The steel anchor for the now-missing stabilization wire is still rooted in the parkway in front of Falkman’s house. It’s still an obstacle Falkman has to remember to avoid when cutting the grass.
Marino said power outages have been so common since about 2008 that he has bought a natural gas-powered generator that kicks in when the power goes out. At least two other neighbors have bought generators as well, he said.
“They snap constantly,” Marino said of the power lines. “You can see all the packings [where the lines have been repaired] on the wires. It happens in spurts, usually in the summer.”
On another occasion, though Falkman couldn’t remember the exact date, he was standing in his backyard when he heard an explosion above and saw a high-power wire fall into the alley directly west of his home.
ComEd, for its part, says that the company has documented three instances of “downed primary power lines” since 2011. Each of those instances could be traced to “outdoor elements such as weather, debris and wildlife contact.”
But that doesn’t match records kept by the Brookfield police and fire departments, which show that emergency personnel have responded to the 9500 block of Garfield Avenue for downed power lines eight times since October 2010.
After a phone call and an email from the Landmark last week inquiring about the incidents on the block and at the Falkman home, ComEd sent a crew to the area on Jan. 22. According to Falkman, the workers appeared to have tightened up the tension on the high-power lines, three of which run down the alley next to Falkman’s house before making a 90-degree turn to the east in front of the property. A service line crosses the rear of Falkman’s property to Marino’s house next door.
According to Falkman and neighbors, the slack lines lapping over onto each other were part of the problem, one that had existed for many years.
“The lines here are so slack,” said Joe Syslo, a neighbor who has lived on the block for 32 years. “In the last 15 years I couldn’t even give you a number of times the power’s gone out. We probably get five shutdowns a year.
“The biggest problem is that the lines are so stretched out. When they get a surge, they just flip over onto each other.”
On Monday, ComEd provided a statement to the Landmark, regarding their response to the Jan. 19 incident.
“After the most recent event, ComEd made the necessary repairs to restore power,” wrote Linsey Godbey, a spokeswoman for ComEd. “ComEd returned to Garfield Avenue to evaluate and ensure there were no safety concerns. Work was performed to reinforce the infrastructure, and additional infrastructure enhancements are being assessed. We have been in touch with the affected customers to keep them apprised of our efforts.”
Falkman says he has spoken to no one at ComEd since the Jan. 19 incident, although his wife spoke with someone who came by on Jan. 22. She mainly gave him a piece of her mind, said Falkman, who added past attempts to get ComEd to address the situation were met with silence.
“The reply we got from ComEd was, ‘We can’t do anything to help you,'” Falkman said.