Downtown electrical fire near public restroom emits toxic smoke, cancels concert

An underground substation in downtown Portland caught fire around 5 p.m. tonight and continued to emit toxic smoke more than four hours later. Portland Fire & Rescue and the Portland Police assisted Portland General Electric (PGE) and Pacific Power for several hours after the fire broke out.

When the Vanguard arrived at the North Park Blocks at 9 p.m., technicians wore protective breathing masks as they worked on a visibly smoking substation. A PGE technician said the area will not be evacuated, in part because the fire has been extinguished and because the fire did not pose an immediate threat to any gas lines.

The underground substation, maintained by Pacific Power, is near a Portland Loo public toilet in the North Park Blocks near the corner of NW 8th & Couch. Cutting power to the substation extinguished the fire. Portland Fire & Rescue blocked off streets from NW 8th & Park Ave, from NW Couch to Everett, and appeared to be in the process of blocking off sections of NW 10th Ave along the same streets.

While most businesses in the area were closed, pedestrians, residents and business patrons are advised to stay away from the Northwest Park Blocks. Anyone who smells the fumes is advised to leave the area, residents and businesses should keep windows and doors closed as able.

Because PGE and Pacific Power both have grids in the area, traffic is affected. Neighborhood businesses like Embers Lounge have electricity, but the traffic light at NW Broadway & Couch does not; a driver blew through the typically busy intersection, which had a four way stop sign until the traffic lights were installed a few years ago. Drivers should proceed with caution and avoid the area if possible.

According to reports from KOIN 6 News and KATU News, 2,200+ customers are affected from roughly Broadway to I-405 (not specifying if NW, NE or both) and from roughly SW Jefferson to NW Davis. According to a report from KGW, the Jesus & Mary Chain concert at the Crystal Ballroom was cancelled due to the loss of power.

The Vanguard spoke with two Portland Fire & Rescue technicians and a PGE technician on the scene, all of whom declined to be identified.

Some posts by witnesses on social media incorrectly characterize the underground substation fire as being a “sewer fire,” likely due to the substation’s proximity to the Portland Loo.