The frightening fire danger faced by Navajo and Apache county was underscored this week by a small fire in Heber that consumed an acre of brush and trees in less than 10 minutes, Navajo County’s Fire Restrictions Coordinator Catrina Jenkins warned the board of supervisors.
All of Navajo and Apache counties are already in “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, with bone dry fuels more typical of June than April.
“Our conditions are not looking great,” she said, in wry understatement.
The extreme fire danger already gripping southeast Arizona will spread to most of the state by the beginning of May, she noted — displaying graphs produced by the US Weather Service to underscore the point.
“Southeast Arizona has already had a fire recently and we lost some homes to a very fast-moving fire. Next month, it’ll cover the whole state.”
Fortunately, the current forecast predicts a wet monsoon — which will dampen the fire danger sometime in July.
By comparison — after last winter’s normal snow pack the whole state had escaped the grip of the drought at this time last year. Even so, the hot dry spring in 2020 and the lack of monsoon rains fueled a record-breaking fire year in Arizona — with nearly 1 million acres burned.
“However, we do have a little light at the end of the tunnel Jenkins told the supervisors on Tuesday. “In July, they’r’e predicting a wetter than normal potential monsoon season - so we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”
She noted that this week humidity dropped to 8% and winds rose to 50 miles an hour, prompting red flag fire warnings.
On Monday — just ahead of those red flag conditions — crews rushed to contain a small fire in Heber.
“We were able to keep it under four acres. But it burned one acre in 10 minutes ... so it was a little bit of a nerve wracking afternoon. We did end up evacuating a few homes as a precaution - but they were able to go home.”
The extreme fire danger will prompt Arizona Public Service to take extra precautions sooner than usual — including some changes that could cause power blackout in areas like Show Low.
APS representative Neil Traver told the supervisors that the utility company will shortly shut down the system that automatically tries to restore power on a line that shorts out as fail-safe programs kick in.
Normally, when something like a mylar balloon or a tree branch connects two power lines, the system automatically shuts off to avoid damaging the lines. But a backup program immediately tests to see if the line can be re-energized. In the current fire conditions, that automatic test of the line could perhaps set a dried out tree branch on fire or ignite a patch of grass if the line’s on the ground.
That’s exactly what caused one of the biggest wildfires in California history - killing 85 people and inflicting billions in damage. Wildfires caused by downed power lines led to the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas and Electric — the biggest utility company in California.
Traver said APS spends a lot of money every year maintaining a cleared space around its power lines. That reduces the odds a downed power line will start a wildfire. It also reduces the odds that thick smoke from a fire will effectively create a path so that electricity can jump from one otherwise insulated line to another — creating a major power outage.
“We work year round to make sure that we do an integrated vegetation management plan and a defensible space around poles,” said Traver. “We go through and clear out a 10-foot space around poles in a high fire risk area. So if sparks come to ground, it doesn’t start a fire” along 4,500 miles of lines that pass through the forest.
Turning off the automatic line testers reduces the odds a downed line will start a fire — but it also delays the repair of those lines. As a result, instead of a flicker of the lights — a problem along the line might cause an hour long outage in forested communities like Show Low.
“We want to make sure we can put boots on the ground and make sure there’s no potential that we have a wire on the ground or a line in a tree that’s causing sparks. So there’s a potential the power might be out for an hour. We’ve done this for a few years now. It's been very well accepted. People are constantly saying, we’d rather have a power outage for an hour and continue to have our forest,” Traver said.
Supervisor Daryl Seymore commented, “we appreciate the efforts you make to keep us safe. Are you doing any better at trimming trees to make them look a little more sculpturesque?”
Traver laughed, “we don’t hire Picasso. I can't make any promises on that.”
None of the supervisors asked the more pressing questions of APS, which involves whether the giant power company is willing to continue buying electricity from NovoPower in Snowflake, the region’s only biomass burning power plant.
APS’ existing contract with NovoPower is about to expire, putting the future of the power plant in doubt. Solar, wind and natural gas power generation is now cheaper than generating electricity from the wood scraps generated by a forest thinning project. So without a contract extension with both APS and the Salt River Project, NovoPower cannot continue to operate.
The power plant is currently the key to forest thinning projects in the region, since it creates the only market for the biomass produced by a forest thinning project. Without a market for the small trees and wood scrap, forest thinning projects can’t make money. This reality has stalled the 4-Forest Restoration Project for the past decade.
Previous thinning projects made possible by the biomass burning plant are widely credited with saving both Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire — the biggest fire in the state’s history.