When Wade Ward retired a few years ago after serving more than 20 years as a firefighter, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with the second half of his life.
That’s when Arizona Public Services called. Since 2015 he has served as the company’s fire mitigation specialist, overseeing that department statewide. He looks at fire mitigation from the whole transmission and distribution side of the company.
And with more than 6,000 miles of transmission power lines, nearly 30,000 miles of distribution lines and 75,000 power poles within the urban interface alone, that’s a tall task.
“About two years ago APS realized that wildfires are becoming an even bigger risk,” APS spokeswoman Annie DeGraw said. “We needed someone to come in and lead all our programs and create a structure where we could not only work with internal players but external players, as well. We knew Wade had those relationships, which is why he was recruited.”
While fire mitigation has been used by APS for years, the specialist position is new.
“We have an insatiable appetite for electricity so we need to ensure that we provide that service to our customers,” Ward said. “For me it’s personal. It’s not about what I do but why I do it. I do it because we have a huge risk here in Arizona. We have 48 percent of the population alone who live in the wildland urban interface.”
Ward said Sedona is not unique from any other part of APS’ electricity distribution system in terms of potential dangers. If anything, there is a higher risk here because of the surrounding forest. Like anywhere else, a wildfire can be devastating to a community in terms of lost life and structures, not to mention a major blow to its economy and scenic value.
“That’s why it’s about cohesiveness and working with other agencies to try and prevent these fires from happening,” he said. “My role and responsibilities are to not only look at our system and mitigate fires but to be interacting with local agencies to help with suppression of the fire and to provide safety for those first responders.”
Unlike other parts of the state, Ward said APS has specific concerns regarding the Sedona and Verde Valley.
“We have an enormous amount of fuels in a very populated area,” he said. “So when you look out you can see a contiguous amount of fuel because everything is touching. This is not natural because we’ve taken fire out of the ecosystem. Fire is part of the natural ecosystem so when you remove that, this is what you get — a contiguous base of fuels. That’s one of the scariest things for fire managers.”
Because APS is the state’s largest power supplier, Ward said it’s unlikely that a large fire could take place without impacting their system. But, the good thing of having so many lines is that APS’ rights-of-way — as well as the vegetation mitigation — often serve as a fire break, which can slow a wildfire.
The rights-of-ways and power poles are cleared on a threeyear cycle. However, if an area is deemed dangerous, it can be moved up in the rotation. Each pole receives a clearing of 400 square feet of vegetation and debris on the ground as well as any nearby branches that are impacting wires.
“If a fire does come through, that vegetation mitigation can often save a pole and thus save the company a lot of time and resources by not having to replace those poles and equipment,” he said.
In terms of the poles themselves, Ward that while the wood poles are combustible, in the rural areas they are used more often because they can be climbed by linemen to make repairs. In order to repair anything on a metal pole, a boom truck must be able to access it.
He said metal poles often tend to hide defects better than wooden ones. And burying all the lines is not an option because of the overwhelming cost.
In the event of a wildfire, Ward is contacted by the local fire agency. From his vehicle he can shut down power to poles that are in the line of the fire. This provides additional safety for the firefighters battling the blaze in the APS rightsof-way. Then, the goal is to restore power as soon as possible once the area is deemed safe.
If the poles are damaged, crews will come and handle the restoration of the poles and lines. This was the case during July’s Goodwin Fire near Prescott that scorched 28,000 acres.
“When we shut the power off in Goodwin, it wasn’t because our poles were on fire. We shut the power off so firefighters could get in and fight the fire,” DeGraw said. “We’re not going to allow them to fight around live wires. In cases like that, we’ll keep the power off as long as it takes to allow them to safely do their job.”