Arizona Wallow Fire May Hit Power Lines, Cause Blackouts

Parts of New Mexico and Texas will face rolling blackouts if fire hits lines.

ByABC News
June 9, 2011, 2:37 AM

June 9, 2011— -- The massive wildfires raging in Arizona expanded as wind-whipped flames tore through canyons in the eastern mountains, forcing firefighters to retreat from flames that have ripped through the popular vacation town of Greer. Officials ordered the evacuation of two towns and the flames are threatening power supplies, which may lead to rolling blackouts across parts of Texas and New Mexico.

But with all this dry brush and heavy winds firefighters -- who have come to Arizona from as far away as New York -- are facing an uphill battle to bring the blaze under control.

Aircraft are fighting to hold the line from above, dropping fire retardant to smother flare-ups threatening Paso Electric's high-voltage transmission lines, which supply electricity for hundreds of thousands of people.

If these lines go, it will mean blackouts for many part of the region.

The blaze that has blackened land half the size of Rhode Island was sparked May 29 -- by what authorities believe was an unattended campfire, according to the Associated Press.

"There are concerns about power transmission lines and obviously the fire is still moving and active and spotting, so there are concerns," Karen Takai, a spokesman for the fire incident command, said Thursday.

According to utility representatives, the company is prepared to obtain power from other sources and is coordinating with other utilities in case lines are affected.

A major concern is that the fire is getting dangerously close to power lines that supply customers in southern New Mexico and west Texas. If the blaze engulfed those power lines, it would cut off 40 percent of electrical supply and possibly trigger rolling blackouts for some 372,000 customers.

Near the New Mexico-Arizona state line, in the two small towns of Springerville and Eagar, residents were ordered out on Wednesday. Combined, the population of the two towns is approximately 8,000.

"They're doing all that they can but this fire is in charge of its own destiny," rancher Denny Finch told ABC News, after he helplessly watched the flames close in on his home, praying firefighters could save it.

As of Wednesday there still hadn't been anyone injured or killed, though the U.S. Forest Service said today the fire has now scorched 336,187 acres. A total of 11 buildings have been destroyed.

On Tuesday the Wallow fire became the second-largest wildfire in Arizona state history.

Tough decisions for Firefighters

Crews are being forced to decide which houses they are able to save, as some residents have left brush piles, firewood and other flammable material next to or near their homes. Firefighters have been informing residents to move such materials 50 to 100 feet away from structures.

"It's called triage and we have to prioritize which homes will be saved and which ones will burn," fire information officer Jim Williams told ABC News' Phoenix affiliate ABC-15.

According to fire spokesman Jim Whittington, a 747 super tanker is expected to arrive Thursday to help with air support on the flames. On Thursday winds aren't expected to be as strong as the past few days.

"I would like three days with no wind, and rain," Whittington said.

Unfortunately that is not in the region's forecast.

ABC News' Michael Murray and the Associated Press contributed to this report