LAKELAND - An electrical substation erupted in flames and smoke about 11:30 Monday morning, temporarily cutting power to thousands of Lakeland area customers and providing spectators a dramatic scene of destruction.
A transformer where Lakeland Electric's substation ties into a Progress Energy transmission line failed, igniting 14,000 gallons of oil normally used to cool the transformer.
Firefighters spent the afternoon keeping the blaze contained while allowing the oil to burn itself out and tamping down periodic flare-ups.
The substation was not staffed at the time of the fire, and no one was injured, Lakeland Fire Department spokeswoman Cheryl Edwards said.
It's not clear what caused the transformer to malfunction, but Progress Energy equipment was not to blame. "It's our problem," said Jim Stanfield, Lakeland Electric's general manager.
The city of Lakeland owns its power utility, Lakeland Electric. It provides power for about 250,000 customers. Outages appeared to be confined to the west Lakeland area surrounding the fire site. Traffic signals at several busy intersections were out more than an hour.
Power was restored to most customers Monday within about 90 minutes. Stanfield said Lakeland Electric workers rerouted power flow around the substation and used a diesel-powered "peaker" plant to maintain power levels.
Stanfield said damage to the substation will not have long-term effect.
From miles away, Lakeland residents could notice the disturbance in the power grid when the transformer failed and the fire started. Moments later, they could see a plume of pitch black smoke roiling upward, so dense it looked like a tornado against a clear blue sky.
Nearer to the fire, residents said they lost power and then heard an explosion.
"I knew it was the transformer," said Kathy Kirchor, who lives just off West Highlands Road, several hundred yards from the substation. When she walked outside, "All I could see was flames and black columns of smoke."
Citing possible hazards from the smoke, emergency workers sought to evacuate homes within a half-mile radius of the fire, Edwards said. But not everyone left.
Throughout the neighborhoods surrounding the substation, small crowds gathered in the midday heat to watch the substation burn.
Don Gadbois, who lives in a trailer park near the substation, said deputies moved people closest to the fire to the other side of the park.
For more than an hour, firefighters didn't try to battle the flames as they struggled to take the safest approach to control the fire.
Stanfield said the substation is not a total loss, but the transformer is. He did not have an estimate on damage, but did say "it will be very expensive to repair."
At least 35 firefighters from both the Lakeland and Polk fire departments battled the blaze, Edwards said.