Navajo County Ranger Informed of Rising Fire Hazard | Apache County

The frightening fire hazard facing Navajo and Apache Counties was underscored this week by a small fire in Heber that consumed an acre of bush and trees in less than 10 minutes, Catrina Jenkins, Navajo County’s fire control coordinator, warned the board of directors .

All Navajo and Apache counties are already in an “extreme” or “exceptional” drought, with bone-dry fuels more typical of June than April.

“Our conditions are not looking good,” she said with an ironic understatement.

The extreme fire hazard that already exists in southeast Arizona will spread to most of the state by early May, she noted – and displayed graphics from the US Weather Service to underline this.

“There was a fire recently in southeast Arizona and we lost a few houses to a very fast moving fire. Next month it will cover the whole state. “

Fortunately, the current forecast predicts a wet monsoon – which will dampen the risk of fire sometime in July.

For comparison, after the normal snow cover last winter, the entire state had escaped the grip of the drought by this time last year. Even so, the hot, dry spring of 2020 and the lack of monsoon rains in Arizona sparked a record-breaking fire year – with nearly one million acres of land burned.

“However, we have a little light at the end of the tunnel,” Jenkins told the supervisor on Tuesday. “In July they predict a potentially wetter monsoon season than normal – so we keep our fingers crossed.”

She found that that week the humidity dropped to 8% and the wind increased to 80 mph, causing fire warnings with red flags.

On Monday – just before these red flags – the crews rushed to contain a small fire in Heber.

“We were able to keep it under four acres. But it burned in 10 minutes one morning … so it was a bit of a nerve-wracking afternoon. In the end we evacuated a few houses as a precaution – but they could go home. “

The extreme risk of fire will cause the Arizona Public Service to take extra precautions sooner than usual – including some changes that could result in power outages in areas like Show Low.

APS representative Neil Traver told supervisors that the utility company will shortly shut down the system that is automatically attempting to restore power to a line that shorts out when fail-safe programs are deployed.

When something like a mylar balloon or branch connects two power lines, the system usually automatically shuts down to avoid damaging the lines. But a backup program immediately tests whether the line can be supplied with power again. Given the current fire conditions, this automatic line test could perhaps set a parched branch on fire or ignite a patch of grass with the line on the ground.

That is exactly what caused one of the largest forest fires in California history – 85 people died and caused billions in damage. Forest fires caused by failed power lines led to the bankruptcy of Pacific Gas and Electric – the largest utility company in California.

Trever said APS spends a lot of money every year to get a free space around its power lines. This reduces the chances of a rundown power line starting wildfire. It also reduces the likelihood of thick smoke from a fire effectively forming a path, allowing electricity to jump from one otherwise isolated line to another – resulting in a major power outage.

“We work year round to make sure we have an integrated vegetation management plan and a defensible space around the masts,” said Trever. “We go through and clear a 10 foot space around the masts in a high risk area. So if sparks go down, it won’t ignite fire ”on 4,500 miles of pipes running through the forest.

Turning off the automatic line testers will reduce the chance that a dropped line will start a fire – but it will also delay the repair of those lines. As a result, a problem along the line instead of flickering lights in wooded communities like Show Low could cause an hour-long outage.

“We want to make sure we can put boots on the ground and make sure there isn’t a wire on the ground or a wire in a tree that could cause sparks. So there is a chance the power could go out for an hour. We have been doing this for a number of years. It is very well received. People keep saying that we would rather have an hour of power failure and continue our forest. “

Supervisor Daryl Seymore commented, “We appreciate the efforts you are making to keep us safe. Would you do better to prune trees to make them look a little more sculptural? “

Trever laughed: “We’re not hiring Picasso. I can’t promise anything. “

None of the supervisors asked APS the more urgent questions, namely whether the giant electricity company is ready to continue to source electricity from NovoPower in Snowflake, the region’s only biomass power plant.

APS’s existing contract with NovoPower is expiring, which calls into question the future of the power plant. Solar, wind and natural gas power generation is now cheaper than power generation from wood residues that arise in a thinning project. Without a contract extension with both APS and the Salt River project, NovoPower cannot continue operations.

The power plant is currently the key to thinning projects in the region as it creates the only market for the biomass produced in a thinning project. Without a market for the small trees and wood waste, thinning projects cannot make money. This reality has brought the 4-Forest Restoration Project to a standstill for the past ten years.

Previous thinning projects made possible by the biomass incinerator are widely credited with saving both Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire – the largest fire in the state’s history.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other issues for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach out to him at [email protected]

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