When I drove back along the same road a week later, all that was left of those fires were tar-black stains on what is otherwise a golden bit of desert brush.
But, in the Southwestern desert, without rain in plain sight, fire is the top tier of summer weather, and flames have broken out once again---this time into one of the largest blazes in Arizona history, known as the Wallow fire. Wallow has already burned 389,000 acres, mostly of national forest land.
The firemen in this scenario have moved past the single hose to fight the flames and are using fire retardant dropped from the air and entire brigades of fireman from as far away as New York. And, while the fighters are making progress, the fire is getting dangerously close to power transmission lines in the area and may cause blackouts.
"There are concerns about power transmission lines and obviously the fire is still moving and active,â said Karen Takai, a spokesman for the fire incident command to ABC News on Thursday. On Wednesday night, ABC News reported that it covered over 600 square miles.
El Paso Electric Co. is reporting that the fire is about 15 miles from their Springerville-Luna transmission line, though whether that line will be under fire---or above it, as the case may be---is entirely a matter of wind.
Now, wildfires in the Southwest arenât often the towering, raging visuals weâve seen in movies. The brush and burn areas are small and short. Flames rarely get taller than a few inches unless they encounter a bigger burnable obstacle like a house or the rare tree. With most transmission lines high, high in the air on big steel supports, transmission lines are unlikely to be drastically impacted by such a low-burning fire. But, given the right wind, the right environmental force, the unlikely can still happen.
So, El Paso Electric is taking no chances. Theyâve warned their customers that the fire could hurt their ability to bring in power from Palo Verde, which could lead to rolling blackouts (in a worst case scenario). But, they do have equipment on hand to roll in and fix things as soon as the area is safe.
El Paso Electric owns one 345 kV transmission line and co-owns another 345 kV line that carry power from the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona to the utilityâs Southern New Mexico/West Texas service territory. Combined, the lines carry 633 MW, which is almost 40 percent of the companyâs available generation. This fire could impact nearly 372,000 customers.
In the end, no line may be impacted by the fire. Weâll all cross our fingers for that one. There is reason to hope with low winds and superior firefighter power this Thursday morning.
But, El Paso Electric should be commended not just for being prepared with men, equipment and trucks---one expects that with a well-run utility today---but also for being proactive in communication and transparent with its customers and the press. Thatâs key to keeping panic to a minimum in any dangerous situation.
With these open lines of information, people feel they can trust El Paso Electric to keep an eye on the flames. And building trust is important in any relationship, even in business---perhaps especially in business. Despite the potential detrimental impact to customers in the form of power loss, El Paso Electric will be seen by their customers as a partner ready and able to help if the worst happens.
But, letâs hope the worst doesnât happen---no tar-black stains on the desert floor under those transmission lines please.