Before there were bees, there was a fire.
A month before a swarm of honeybees in Oriole Park’s outfield interrupted gameplay on Aug. 27, an electrical fire started in the Camden Yards complex’s cooling plant around 2 p.m. on July 30, five hours ahead of the red-hot Orioles’ home game against the New York Yankees on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball.”
The fire damaged one of the complex’s three chillers — the machines that cool the ballpark and M&T Bank Stadium. Another of the three chillers suffered a mechanical problem, likely related to the fire, said Jeff Provenzano, the Maryland Stadium Authority’s vice president of facilities.
“In the matter of an hour, we lost two-thirds of the plant’s capacity to cool the complex,” Provenzano told the authority’s board on Tuesday. “Not a good time. Not a good time.”
Electrical fires can start because of faulty electrical systems or inappropriate wiring installation among other reasons, and Provenzano said it’s unknown what caused the incident. The fire, which was small enough that it did not trigger an alarm, was noticed by an employee. It was contained to the chiller plant and no one was injured, Provenzano said.
Stadium Authority Chair Craig Thompson described the situation as a “crisis averted.”
“Jeff and his team and their fast acting averted quite a bit of a disaster,” said John Samoryk, the stadium authority vice president for procurement.
In a pinch, Oriole Park can operate with just one chiller, so there was no dire situation that July 30 night, especially since it was not an unbearably hot evening. Had it occurred a few days earlier, or this week, with temperatures reaching 97 degrees, it would have presented a larger problem.
The stadium authority sought to swiftly bring in temporary chillers, which was not an easy task in late July, Provenzano said. One chiller was set to be delivered to South Dakota before the stadium authority rented it.
“We were blessed the next four or five days while we were waiting for the temporary chiller,” Provenzano said of the temperatures that week. “If it had been like it is right now, we’d be having a different conversation.”
After the Sunday night game, the Orioles played a series in Toronto and returned for a set against the New York Mets starting Aug. 4. That morning, the stadium authority began using a temporary chiller, which supplemented the remaining working one. Two weeks later, they rented another temporary device.
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Provenzano said they had to “get creative” to keep the facilities cool. For example, they air-conditioned some parts of the complex to 72 degrees, while leaving other places warmer.
The only hiccup arose during the Ravens’ preseason game on Aug. 12, a day that saw a high of 93 degrees. There was a “minor malfunction” with the temporary chiller.
“Everybody mobilized, but we were challenged,” Provenzano said. “If you were at the game, you could’ve been in an area that could’ve been a little bit — I don’t wanna say warmer. I would just say, not as cool as you’d like it to be.”
By the end of August, the stadium authority had paid for the two damaged chillers to be repaired. There are not expected to be any cooling problems Sunday afternoon as M&T Bank Stadium hosts the Ravens’ season opener against the Houston Texans.
“The plant is now fully functional,” Provenzano said.
It was the plant’s oldest chiller, which was installed in 1992 in Oriole Park’s inaugural year, that caught fire. Provenzano said it hadn’t shown “signs of needing imminent replacement.” Soon, however, the stadium authority might look at upgrading the machines, he said.
As for the roughly 2,000 bees at Oriole Park, a stadium authority employee who is a beekeeper relocated them last week.