What happens when live power lines come down in a campground? Now I know …

A high-voltage power line came down in the midst of our camp site last weekend near Cloud Croft, New Mexico. We evacuated to the highway for most of the night. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

 

Forget bears, widow maker trees and lightning storms. After last weekend, I’m moving power lines to the top of my list of things to pay attention to while camping.

During a (culinary) mushroom-foraging trip to the Lincoln National Forest, a small group of us convened at a group camp site not far from Cloudcroft, New Mexico. Some of us pitched tents on designated gravel tent pads; our leader wheeled up a travel trailer.

We didn’t give much thought to the power lines that cut through the small campground. We were camping on prepared sites, so we assumed they’d be safely positioned.

It had rained all afternoon, and as we zipped up our tent flaps and tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags to go to bed, light showers were still falling. I fell asleep right away, but woke up at about 1 a.m. to a bright flash and a weird buzzy, surging noise that sounded straight out of “Poltergeist.”

I sat up and blinked, but didn’t notice anything else, so after a minute or two I snuggled back down under the covers and shut my eyes. After a few minutes, though, something didn’t seem right. I heard voices. I unzipped my tent flaps, poked my head out and noticed a string of what looked like (without my contacts in) twinkling lights on the ground.

Scorch lines where the power line fell cut through the middle of camp. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

Weird. It didn’t make sense, especially since I was still half asleep.

I jabbed my husband in the ribs. “What’s that?” I said, trying to wake him up.

He rolled over. I jabbed him again, and held the tent flaps open so he could see the sizzling line of fire.

About that time, Don, our trip leader, started hollering. We yanked on clothes, leaped out of our tent and saw a downed power line about 20 feet from our tent, 3 feet from one of the other campers and 4 inches from the edge of the travel trailer.

Looking back, I should have run through the woods, away from the power line, but that’s not what I did. We ran toward the downed line, jumped across it and met our group in the parking lot on the other side. When everyone had made it safely across, we piled into vehicles, drove out of the campground, parked on the road a few hundred feet away and called 911.

It took an hour for emergency fire crews to arrive, and the power lines crackled and snapped on the ground for another hour after that, while we waited for power company crews to show up and turn off the current.

At about 5:30 a.m., the emergency crews finished up and we rolled back into our campground, filed back into our tents in the rain and slept a few more soggy hours.

When we finally got up, scorched burn lines in the grass and tire tracks sunk in the mud were the only signs of what had happened.

We joked a lot about the incident, but the truth is we’d come very close to tragedy. If the wire had fallen a few feet over, the line would have landed on one of our tents. If anyone had touched the live wire, they’d have been electrocuted. If the wire had fallen on the trailer, the trailer might have caught fire – or the people inside could have been shocked as they exited it. If the line had hit the propane tank, who knows. And if the grass had been dry, it may have started a forest fire.

So many things could have gone wrong. We were lucky.

I’m never sleeping anywhere near a power line again. I’m taking my chances in the back country with the bears, the lightning storms, the funky water and anything else Mother Nature could throw at us.

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