THE BLOG
01/29/2016 03:45 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2017

Of Mice and Mylar

Last Sunday, we saw the first of the elk entering our property.

The lead elk was like a scout, poking through the brush near the Neacoxie Creek.

You could hear the "whoosh" of the herd long before you could really see them, conjuring up visions of the prehistoric world. Would mastodons be next?

Enticed by the large, grassy neighboring lot, the herd emerged from the narrow path and woods by the creek and began staking their positions. At first they stood assembled in a lineup, one after the other taking some kind of preordained position in various corners of the lot. The smaller animals came first out of the woods, and the rows filled out. In a corner of the group, two young bulls frolicked and playfully butted heads. Then from the woods emerged the majestic elders, with mottled skin and huge racks, proud creatures flanked by their harem and offspring.

"What's that one doing?" my wife, the Jersey girl, asked.

Streetside, a circle of elk were crowding around the wooden utility pole. The pole was held upright by metal wires, covered with a protective yellow covering. The elk began chewing on the protective shell. They began pulling at the wires. They gnawed at the wood pole. They scraped and pulled and burrowed.

"Should I call the power company?" she asked.

"N-no," I said, mesmerized, standing at the window. "I think it's only a guide wire."

Still, the animals kept working, until others in the group folded their legs and settled down like an audience at symphony hall.

Short-circuit

The day before I'd heard Pacific Power's Sheila Holden at the Seaside Downtown Development Association breakfast at the Pig 'N Pancake.

"What can we do at Pacific Power to be a better partner with the community?" Holden asked. "What are some of the things that are important to the people, the businesses in the community? We want to not only make the community better, but the businesses better."

A hand shot up.

"Has there been something done to the substation to cover the top so we don't have another Fourth of July?" Jeff Ter Har asked.

He was referring to last year, when Seaside's Independence Day celebration was brought to a sudden halt after an outage.

Seaside, Gearhart and parts of Warrenton were without power from about 4:40 p.m. to 10:20 p.m. as Pacific Power crews replaced damaged equipment. A balloon, officials later announced, caused a main substation transformer to short-circuit near Seaside Factory Outlet Center.

"Balloons may seem like small things," Pacific Power Safety Manager Gene Morris said at the time. "But when escaped balloons touch power lines or substations, even the smallest amount of metal content material can conduct electricity."

When a balloon "gets in there in the wrong spot, it just basically short circuits the transmitting of the electricity," Pacific Power spokesman Tom Gauntt added.

"I knew that would come up," Holden said, six months later. "Mylargate. No, we don't cover the tops of our substations."

Pacific Power even holds events with balloons, Holden confessed. "But they are not Mylar."


Nature on the lines

These seemingly harmless, festive party items cause, according to SafeElectricity.org, "hundreds of thousands" of power outages, including the one in Seaside.

In California, under the "Balloon Law," Mylar balloons have been prohibited since 1990. Even with the ban, foil-lined party balloons cause 100 to 150 outages a year, according to Pacific Gas & Electric. In 2008, a California legislator introduced a bill to ban those, too. Florists and party planners objected, and successfully lobbied for its defeat.

Even kites have been known to bring down power systems.

A New York Times opinion writer in 2013 chronicled outages caused by animals after reading about a squirrel that electrocuted itself on a power line in Tampa, Florida, cutting electricity to 700 customers. He came up with 50 power outages caused by squirrels in 24 states.

In March, an animal about the size of a raccoon got into a substation in southeast Bend and caused fuses to blow, knocking out power to more than 8,600 customers and blacking out homes, stores and traffic lights for three hours.

Twenty-one buildings in Tulsa, Oklahoma, -- including the Oklahoma State University Medical Center -- were affected by a rodent-caused power outage in October, after a rat or mouse crawled into a transformer's switch gear.

Less than a month ago, a squirrel knocked out power to 1,800 customers in Sunnyside, Washington.

Seeing the elk working so diligently at the wire in our backyard reminded me of the random qualities of nature. A bitter northeast wind. Animals on a ridge path. A children's balloon.
How powerful we are. Yet how powerless, as well.