Dry ground pulls power boxes from homes in Regina, causes six fires

This photo, supplied by SaskPower, shows a meter that has pulled away from a home because of ground-shifting due to extremely dry conditions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-SaskPower MANDATORY CREDIT

REGINA - There was a popping sound like fireworks, yellow sparks and a plume of black smoke as a power meter caught fire at a home in Regina.

Provincial utility company SaskPower says the fire Monday night was the sixth power meter to ignite in the city in the last two weeks because parched soil is causing the ground to shift.

"When we saw the first one, it was very unusual," SaskPower spokesman Jonathan Tremblay said Tuesday.

"We sometimes see this type of ground shift damage. It's usually not this bad, and very rarely do we see something with a fire being caused — maybe once or twice in the past decade."

Tremblay said the ground is pulling away from homes because of extremely dry weather and taking the meters along with it.

Environment Canada figures show Regina had only 1.8 millimetres of rain last month — the driest July in 130 years.

Tremblay said there's occasionally some shifting in the spring, especially the clay parts of the province. However, he said that shifting goes back and forth.

"This is a different type of shifting where the extreme dryness is compacting the earth," Tremblay said.

"It is going down and away from the house, and so that is a pulling motion. There is some slack in the line for that to happen, but there certainly isn't for the six to eight inches we've been seeing in some areas."

Tremblay said 2,000 meters have been inspected so far over 10 days in three Regina neighbourhoods that have older homes and underground power service. About 800 of those 2,000 meters needed repairs, he said.

Tremblay said people can help by looking for meter boxes that are tilting, frayed wires poking out the bottom of the box or a big gap between the ground and the house.

People who have overhead power lines going to a pole are not affected.

None of the meter boxes are the smart meters that caused previous problems for SaskPower.

In 2014, the province ordered SaskPower to remove more than 100,000 smart meters after reports of eight cases where the devices caught fire. A review found rain water and contaminants getting into the meters appeared to contribute to their failure.

SaskPower is also expanding the inspections for problems due to ground-shifting beyond Regina to places with similar conditions, such as clay soil and little rain.

Inspections began Monday in Moose Jaw and may also be done in Shaunavon and Kindersley.

Even a good rain won't change the situation, said Tremblay.

"The damage is done in many cases. Those wires are being pulled. Those meter boxes are tilted, so we will have to keep going," he said.

"Rain may help here and there, but certainly the damage that is done needs to be inspected right away."

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