Electrical malfunction causes fire at apartment building, displacing dozens, officials say

Ovation Apartment Building sign

MADISON, Wis. — Residents of an apartment building in downtown Madison are still in the dark Thursday morning, days after a fire damaged electrical equipment and caused a partial power outage.

The outage at The Ovation on Johnson Street started on the night of New Year’s Eve, according to building management.

The electrical malfunction that led to an explosion and fire has also displaced dozens of people who live in the building, fire officials said.

The Madison Fire Department said firefighters at Station 1, which is housed in the Ovation complex, first heard a loud “boom” from their kitchen on New Year’s Eve at 9:30 p.m. Electricity in the firehouse flickered off but soon returned under generator power. Meanwhile, firefighters saw out the back door that there was a large amount of smoke coming from an outdoor vent, and an alarm panel indicated a sprinkler had activated in the residential parking garage. Several crews were dispatched to join Engine Co. 1 in their response.

According to the fire department, crews identified the source of the fire to be electrical equipment mounted to the ceiling of the parking garage. Although the fire was contained, it affected the power supply for most of the residential building.

In an e-mail to residents, management staff said crews have been working to restore power to affected apartments, but the damaged parts are custom-made, making replacements hard to find. They intended to make repairs within two days of the incident, but if they’re unable to find the necessary parts, the outage could last as long as six days.

The outage is affecting all residential apartments, although some parts of the building still have power. That includes elevators and building security, hallways, the parking garage, and the building’s fitness center and locker room.

Building management has also booked hotel rooms for displaced residents until repairs can be made.

Fire department spokeswoman Cynthia Schuster said the fire broke out right next to an automatic fire sprinkler head, and the immediate activation of the sprinkler was instrumental in keeping the fire confined to its point of origin.

“Without it, fire may have quickly spread to parked vehicles, into electrical shafts, and elsewhere throughout the building, causing significantly more destruction and putting the lives of occupants and firefighters at risk,” Schuster said.

Madison Fire Department fire marshal Ed Ruckriegel said if it weren’t for the garage’s automatic sprinkler system, the damage may have been much worse. His department says recovery could have taken months if that building didn’t have a functioning system in place.

“Automobiles might have, you know, fueled the fire, and then you would have had a very different situation just from vehicle fires and then that pushing smoke throughout the building potentially,” Ruckriegel said.
The cause of the explosion and subsequent fire is still under investigation, according to Ruckriegel.

In the meantime, Hovde Properties sent a statement saying staff and contractors have been working around the clock to provide the best possible service for those involved, adding the custom electrical components involved in the incident are in emergency production. Those parts are expected to be shipped in the next day or two, and installation will immediately follow. According to management, that means power should be restored by Monday at the latest.