‘Streets don’t normally blow up’: Officials still don’t know what caused an underground utility fire and power outage in Colorado Springs

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Dan Boyce/CPR News
Colorado Springs Utilities crews excavate an area damaged by an explosive underground utility fire which occurred on Sept. 11, 2023.

Whenever Michael Reynolds takes the Bustang bus up to Denver, he shows up to the downtown Metro terminal on Kiowa Street. 

Only this time, there wasn’t any place for the bus to park on Kiowa. The street has remained closed since last month when an explosive fire inside underground utility lines left blocks without power for days. 

“It was kind of scary at first,” Reynolds said. 

The cause of all this occurred at about 2:30 a.m., Sept. 11, when crews responded to reports of flames coming out of manholes. City firefighters even reported an explosion that actually blew one manhole cover into the air.  

“Something like that can be really intimidating and frightening to people that don't know about electricity and also it could be dangerous. There's a lot of electricity in these power lines,” Colorado Springs Utilities Electric Construction Maintenance Manager Kenneth Murry said. “We're very fortunate and very blessed that people were not around when this happened.”

Murry started his career working in southern states, taking part in large-scale utility emergencies regularly. He worked on recovery efforts for hurricanes like Katrina, Rita and Ike and major ice storms that brought infrastructure crashing down.

“In a sense, (this) kind of pales in comparison,” said Murry, who was standing over a gaping trench running across Kiowa as workers in skid steers and cranes continued recovery efforts. “However, I don't think Colorado Springs has seen things of this magnitude.”

Dan Boyce/CPR News
The Mediterranean Cafe in downtown Colorado Springs is located just feet from the source of the underground utility fire. The power outage and resulting complications forced the business to close for a week.

The resulting power loss from the fire lasted days and affected about 280 electric customers downtown. It also knocked out multiple streetlights. For the Mediterranean Cafe, a 20-year downtown mainstay located just feet from the source of the underground fire, the incident led to a week-long closure. 

“I was probably one of the last ones to get power back,” said owner Ronald Hunter. 

Dan Boyce/CPR News
Mediterranean Cafe owner Ronald Hunter says traffic into his restaurant has been down as much as 25 percent in the weeks since the underground utility fire due to the closed block of Kiowa Street.

His insurance covered the couple thousand dollars of food that spoiled from days without refrigeration. However, he estimates the business lost between $6,000 and $10,000. Sidewalks are open on the Kiowa block and city signs inform pedestrians that businesses are indeed open. Still, with the street itself taped off and the nearby heavy machinery operating, Hunter said business has been down as much as 25 percent in the three weeks since he re-opened. 

“We couldn't do anything about (the outage). We just had to accept it,” Hunter said. “But, how do you move forward? There's not going to be normalcy because of the construction that's going to happen for the next month — to however long.”

Colorado Springs Utilities does not have programs to help affected customers recoup their losses, neither does the city’s Downtown Partnership. As for the city government response, their recommendation is for businesses and property owners to first work through their private insurance. Afterward, additional uninsured losses may be considered by the city claims department.

Dan Boyce/CPR News
A temporary street sign tells pedestrians that businesses on the closed block of Kiowa Street remain open on Oct. 6, 2023.

As of Oct. 10, the city had received 15 such claims and said it was waiting for the utility to finish its investigation into the cause of the incident before pursuing additional steps. 

That investigation continues. So far, after excavating deep into the damaged concrete and working through a dense network of overlapping power, fiber and water lines, crews have yet to zero in on a cause. 

“It's been a very, very tedious and measured approach because we don't want to damage anything else while we're down here,” Murry said. 

Sections of melted deformed copper cable lay covered with black plastic tarps next to the excavation. The melting point of copper is nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. 

“This is abnormal. The streets don't normally blow up,” Murry said. “About the biggest reason you would have something like this is if someone bored into our facilities.”

With Colorado Springs becoming an increasingly vibrant hub for space and cybersecurity companies, independent fiber optic companies have been installing their own networks underground to offer customers faster internet speeds.    

“We’re not saying that’s what happened, but it looks like something that could have happened,” Murry said. 

Dan Boyce/CPR News
A section of melted copper power line is kept at the excavation site to assist in finding the cause and source of the Sept. 11, 2023 underground utility fire.

About 15 Colorado Springs Utility staff have been working 12 hours a day, six days a week at the site, Murry said. They’ve replaced a transformer and at least 500 feet of thick copper power cables. Crews are also using the opportunity to replace aging water mains on the block and lay new fiber optic cable for the utility’s own network. 

They expect to finish and have the affected block of Kiowa street back to normal by mid-November.

Ronald Hunter at Mediterranean Cafe is confident his business will survive the unexpected downturn. He said he’s mostly sorry his employees missed out on a week of pay. Hunter and his wife recently bought the cafe from its previous owner, and he’s grateful the community has been rallying behind a longstanding local business.

“I think if we would've started from scratch, I honestly don't know if we would make it because of this,” Hunter said.