The electrical distribution system is not a river. Power doesn't just flow one direction along a line and terminate in your Mr. Coffee with the built in clock as a perfectly heated cup of joe. It is a grid. Power can flow any direction on it from any plant that is producing it to any house tapped into the distribution lines. When the lines in front of your house get severed by a seventy-five year old oak with ants in its pants that decides it can't take it anymore one night in a snowstorm, the power doesn't just stop, it finds ways around the break and keeps on flowing through power lines on the next street over trying to get to your Mr. Coffee with the built in clock. If however those severed distribution lines somehow come in contact with something else that will take the power flowing in them, like say...oh, a ground wire that services three little cottages hidden back off the road, the electricity will say, "this way guys! i found a way out!"
You know ground wires, if you've ever wired an outlet or an overhead lamp or installed a ceiling fan, they're the naked wires next to the black and white ones. They have no insulation so they can catch any rascally stray electricity that has escaped your Mr. Coffee with the built-in clock and before it can do something nasty like cause a fire, the ground wire gives it a better place to go. Specifically an eight foot rod staked into the ground just outside your house. Hence, "grounding" wires.
So let's review. Distribution wires. Severed by oak tree with ants in its pants. Naked ground wires and the last little fun fact of electrical distribution... at any time those wires outside your house have 4000 to 46000 Volts of electricity racing through them. In case you don't know, your house was made to have 240 Volts flow into it. None of which, if things are going well, should be in the ground wires.
i and a score of firemen stood in my driveway two Saturdays ago watching as 4000 to 46000 Volts poured into our little neighborhood through the very wires that were supposed to protect it. Whenever i got too close to the middle house, the one on the shortest wire and therefore taking the brunt of the assault my hands would begin to tingle and hurt. There was so much electricity coursing through the ground itself and the four inches of snow piling up on it that it ran up the metal downspout and lit the Christmas lights on my neighbor's gutter. There was nothing to do. You can't pour water on an electrical fire, unless you want to know what the inside of a lightbulb feels like. You can't just cut the wires because the power has to go somewhere and it's more than happy to go into the ground through you. Peco (the power company) had been called but i guess they were busy on this night of falling trees and skidding cars. At one point around eleven o'clock a buried cable in my neighbor's yard had finally had enough and let go in a geyser of sparks that fused the mud around it into glass. i thought it was the beginning of the end and yet it was quite pretty for all that. It eventually quieted back down and darkness reigned again. My eyes played tricks on me as i strained for the tell-tale glimmer and flicker of the first tongues of a flame. How much more could these highly flammable bundles of sticks take?
Around one in the morning, the Cavalry came in their orange rubber overalls and medieval hardhats and queer amish style beards. i can still say "queer" without meaning "gay" right? Well, i will 'cause it's the right word. They assessed the situation, drove back down to the end of the street and within fifteen minutes, the youngest member of their three man team walked along the street, methodically touching the wires with a long fiberglass pole with a thing-a-ma-bob on the end. Obviously doing the new guy job of "here, take this stick and go touch the wires and tell me if they're dead." He didn't light up or fall down dead so i led a team of the firemen back up the driveway and into the house where they didn't take their boots off at the carpet, shined lights on everything and sniffed in a meaningful way and declared everything "okay." i thanked them profusely and when they were gone, i started getting ready for bed... a task only minutes before i thought i may never do in this house again. The last thing i saw before welcoming the sleep of the exhausted was a man in orange rubbers, a medieval hardhat and a queer little beard taking the electric meter off of my house. "Just a precaution," he assured me. That night, he could have said it was because he was a lab mouse bent on world domination and i would have wished him luck and dropped off before clicking the "k."
The significance of that act would become much more clear over the next five days.