Closely Examining How A PG&E Transmission Line Claimed 85 Lives In The 2018 Camp Fire

In 2018, the Camp Fire devastated a huge swathe of California, claiming 85 lives and costing 16.65 billion dollars. Measured in terms of insured losses, it was the most expensive natural disaster of the year, and the 13th deadliest wildfire in recorded history.

The cause of the fire was determined to be a single failed component on an electrical transmission tower, causing a short circuit and throwing sparks into the dry brush below – with predictable results. The story behind the failure was the focus of a Twitter thread by [Tube Time] this week, who did an incredible job of illuminating the material evidence that shows how the disaster came to be, and how it could have been avoided.

Mismanagement and Money

The blame for the incident has been laid at the feet of Pacific Gas and Electric, or PG&E, who acquired the existing Caribou-Palermo transmission line when it purchased Great Western Power Company back in 1930. The line was originally built in 1921, making the transmission line 97 years old at the time of the disaster. Despite owning the line for almost a full century, much of the original hardware was not replaced in the entire period of PG&Es ownership. Virtually no records were created or kept, and hardware from the early 20th century was still in service on the line in 2018.

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Hackaday Links: August 23, 2020

Apple, the world’s first trillion-dollar company — give or take a trillion — has built a bit of libertarian cachet by famously refusing to build backdoors into their phones, despite the entreaties of the federal government. So it came as a bit of a surprise when we read that the company may have worked with federal agents to build an “enhanced” iPod. David Shayer says that he was one of three people in Apple who knew about the 2005 program, which was at the behest of the US Department of Energy. Shayer says that engineers from defense contractor Bechtel, seemed to want to add sensors to the first-generation iPod; he was never clued in fully but suspects they were adding radiation sensors. It would make sense, given the climate in the early 2000s, walking down the street with a traditional Geiger counter would have been a bit obvious. And mind you, we’re not knocking Apple for allegedly working with the government on this — building a few modified iPods is a whole lot different than turning masses of phones into data gathering terminals. Umm, wait…

A couple of weeks back, we included a story about a gearhead who mounted a GoPro camera inside of a car tire. The result was some interesting footage as he drove around; it’s not a common sight to watch a tire deform and move around from the inside like that. As an encore, the gearhead in question, Warped Perception, did the same trick bit with a more destructive bent: he captured a full burnout from the inside. The footage is pretty sick, with the telltale bubbles appearing on the inside before the inevitable blowout and seeing daylight through the shredded remains of the tire. But for our money, the best part is the slo-mo footage from the outside, with the billowing smoke and shredded steel belts a-flinging. We appreciate the effort, but we’re sure glad this guy isn’t our neighbor.

Speaking of graphic footage, things are not going well for some remote radio sites in California. Some towers that host the repeaters used by public service agencies and ham radio operators alike have managed to record their last few minutes of life as wildfires sweep across the mountains they’re perched upon. The scenes are horrific, like something from Dante’s Inferno, and the burnover shown in the video below is terrifying; watch it and you’ll see a full-grown tree consumed in less than 30 seconds. As bad as the loss of equipment is, it pales in comparison to what the firefighters face as they battle these blazes, but keep in mind that losing these repeaters can place them in terrible jeopardy too.

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A Song Of Fog And Fire – Taking A Look Inside A Rubens’ Tube

The dark winter months are still a bit ahead of us, but with night returning even to the northernmost places, it might be a good time to get your next mood lighting project started. Despite the ubiquitousness of LED strips, cave-time nostalgia makes it hard to beat the coziness of an actual flame here — well, assuming it’s a controlled flame. While modern LED candles do a decent enough job to fool you from a distance, there’s one apparatus they’ll have a hard time to replicate though: the Rubens’ tube. Tired of their usual straight pipe construct, [RyanMake] added some twists and turns to the concept and created a flexible Ruben’s tube made from semi-rigid aluminum ducts.

If you’re not familiar with the Rubens’ tube, it’s a combination of science, fun, and danger to visualize standing waves with fire by attaching a loudspeaker to a pipe with equally spaced holes that’s filled with flammable gas, and light it up. As the resulting visual effect depends on the audio signal’s wavelength, and by that the length of the tube itself, [RyanMake]’s flexible duct approach adds some variety to the usual fixed-length pipe versions of it. But that’s not all he did. After seeing the flames in person, he got curious about what’s actually going on inside that tube and decided to build another one, this time using a clear plastic tube and a fog machine. While the fog escapes the tube rather unimpressively (and could hardly compete with fire anyway), it gives a nice insight of what’s going on inside those tubes. See for yourself in the videos after the break.

Of course, no experiment is truly conducted without failure, and after seeing his first tube go up in flames several times, you should probably hold on to building one as decorative item for indoors. On the other hand, if shooting fire is what you’re looking for, you might be interested in this vortex cannon. And for some more twists on a standard Rubens’ tube, check out the two-dimensional Pyro Board.

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Swap Your Microwave For A High Voltage Stereo

When building a new project, common wisdom suggests to avoid “reinventing the wheel”, or doing something simple from scratch that’s easily available already. However, if you can build a high-voltage wheel, so to speak, it might be fun just to see what happens. [Dan] decided to reinvent not the wheel, but the speaker, and instead of any conventional build he decided to make one with parts from a microwave and over 6,000 volts.

The circuit he constructed works essentially like a Tesla coil with a modulated audio signal as an input. The build uses the high voltage transformer from the microwave too, which steps the 240 V input up to around 6 kV. To modulate that kind of voltage, [Dan] sends the audio signal through a GU81M vacuum tube with the support of a fleet of high voltage capacitors. The antenna connected to the magnetron does tend to catch on fire somewhere in the middle of each song, so it’s not the safest device around even if the high voltage can be handled properly, but it does work better than expected as a speaker.

If you want a high-voltage speaker that (probably) won’t burn your house down, though, it might be best to stick to a typical Tesla coil. No promises though, since working with high voltages typically doesn’t come with safety guarantees.

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Aladdin Lamp Shoots Flames With A Snap Of Your Fingers

Despite their dangers, even Marie Kondo would not convince us to abandon flamethrower projects because they literally spark joy in us. To make this flame shooting Aladdin lamp [YeleLabs] just used a 3D printer and some basic electronics.

The lamp body consists of two 3D-printed halves held together by neodymium magnets. They house a 400 kV spark generator, a fuel pump plus tank, and a 18650 Li-ion battery. The fuel pump is actually a 3 V air pump but it can also pump liquids at low pressure. As fuel [YeleLabs] used rubbing alcohol that they mixed with boric acid to give the flame a greenish tint. The blue base at the bottom of the lamp houses the triggering mechanism which magically lights up the lamp when you snap your fingers. This is achieved by a KY-038 microphone module and KY-019 relay module connected to a Digispark ATTiny85 microcontroller. When the microphone signal is above a certain threshold the relay module will simultaneously switch on the spark generator and fuel pump for 150 ms.

Although they proclaim that the device is a hand sanitizer it is probably safer to stick to using soap. The project still goes on the list of cool flamethrower props right next to the flame shooting Jack-o-Lantern.

Video after the break.

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Fail Of The Week: Thermostat Almost Causes A House Fire

Fair warning: any homeowners who have thermostats similar to the one that nearly burned down [Kerry Wong]’s house might be in store for a sleepless night or two, at least until they inspect and perhaps replace any units that are even remotely as sketchy as what he found when he did the postmortem analysis in the brief video below.

The story begins back in the 1980s, when the Southern New England area where [Kerry] lives enjoyed a housing boom. Contractors rushed to turn rural farmland into subdivisions, and new suburbs crawled across the landscape. Corners were inevitably cut during construction, and one common place to save money was the home’s heating system. Rather than engage an HVAC subcontractor to install a complicated heating system, many builders opted instead to have the electricians install electric baseboards. They were already on the job anyway, and at the time, both copper and electricity were cheap.

Fast forward 40 years or so, and [Kerry] finds himself living in one such house. The other night, upon catching the acrid scent of burning insulation, he followed his nose to the source: a wall-mounted thermostat for his electric baseboard. His teardown revealed burned insulation, bare conductors, and scorched plastic on the not-so-old unit; bearing a 2008 date code, the thermostat must have replaced one of the originals. [Kerry] poked at the nearly combusted unit and found the root cause: the spot welds holding the wires to the thermostat terminal had become loose, increasing the resistance of the connection. As [Kerry] points out, even a tenth of an ohm increase in resistance in a 15 amp circuit would dissipate 20 watts of heat, and from the toasty look of the thermostat it had been a lot more than that.

The corner-cutting of the 1980s was nothing new, of course – remember the aluminum wiring debacle? Electrical fires are no joke, and we’re glad [Kerry] was quick to locate the problem and prevent it from spreading.

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Solar System Wars: Walmart Versus Tesla

It seems like hardly a day goes by that doesn’t see some news story splashed across our feeds that has something to do with Elon Musk and one or another of his myriad companies. The news is often spectacular and the coverage deservedly laudatory, as when Space X nails another double landing of its boosters after a successful trip to space. But all too often, it’s Elon’s baby Tesla that makes headlines, and usually of the kind that gives media relations people ulcers.

The PR team on the automotive side of Tesla can take a bit of a breather now, though. This time it’s Elon’s solar power venture, Tesla Energy Operations, that’s taking the heat. Literally — they’ve been sued by Walmart for rooftop solar installations that have burst into flames atop several of the retail giant’s stores. While thankfully no lives have been lost and no major injuries were reported, Walmart is understandably miffed at the turn of events, leading to the litigation.

Walmart isn’t alone in their exposure to potential Tesla solar problems, so it’s worth a look to see what exactly happened with these installations, why they failed, and what we as hackers can learn from the situation. As we’ll see, it all boils down to taking electrical work very seriously and adhering to standards designed to keep everyone safe, even when they just seem like a nuisance.

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