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Wildfire Races Toward Transmission Lines

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Forest fires in Arizona have already forced thousands of people from their homes. And now the fires are threatening power lines that supply parts of New Mexico and Texas. We're going to follow up on this by going to St. Johns, Arizona, which is where we've reached Sergeant Richard Gwynn with the Apache County Sheriff's Department.

Sergeant, welcome to the program.

Sergeant RICHARD GWYNN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How close is the fire to the transmission lines, as best you can tell?

Sgt. GWYNN: The nearest I can tell is they're within probably a half a mile from what I've seen.

INSKEEP: Half a mile? And is this a fast moving fire where that's really not very much space at all?

Sgt. GWYNN: Yes, sir. It was - earlier it was fast moving. Fortunately, in the evenings the dew points come up and the temperature drops and the winds fall off, so the fire service guys have been able to kind of keep it down. There is a large transmission line that runs off it, over into the reserve New Mexico area and into Texas.

INSKEEP: New Mexico and Texas could be affected by this. Now, I think most of us, at some point, have seen these kinds of massive transmission towers cutting across the landscape, cutting through forests. I presume that's the kind of transmission line we're talking about here, right?

Sgt. GWYNN: Yes, sir.

INSKEEP: And if we're talking about a giant steel structure, can they actually be destroyed by fire? Is that a real danger?

Sgt. GWYNN: Well, the engineers tell me that whenever any of our radio towers or transmission towers like that are exposed to extreme heat - and especially with these (unintelligible) forests, they generate a tremendous amount of heat and it creates stress weakening in the steel. So, yeah, there's a possibility of damage to those towers.

INSKEEP: Goodness. Well, now how hard has it been to fight this fire, Sergeant?

Sgt. GWYNN: It's been a quite a mess. Monday, for instance, we were dealing with 25 to 35 mile an hour winds with 40 and 50 mile an hour gusts. Traditionally, we're somewhat windy anyway, but it's been a little bit higher lately.

INSKEEP: Which, I guess, makes it difficult if you're flying planes overhead and trying to drop water on the fire. To be frank, it's just hard to aim.

Sgt. GWYNN: Absolutely. Especially this fire generated a lot of smoke. And a lot of times, rather than to rise and blow away, it tended to lay down and kind of (unintelligible) the ground like a fog, which, you know, essentially prevents the aerial support - the helicopters and the water tankers - from having a good visual on the ground and knowing where - allowing them to know where exactly to put the fire retardant and the water.

INSKEEP: Sergeant, in a couple of seconds, are you anywhere near having this fire contained?

Sgt. GWYNN: The last report we had indicated zero containment. The Forest Service was - or the incident management team was in the process last night of conducting a series of back burns in the hopes of tying some containment lines together so that they can start to calculate some percentages of containment. I haven't had anything new on that yet.

INSKEEP: OK. Sergeant Richard Gwynn of the Apache County Sherriff's Department in Arizona, thanks very much.

Sgt. GWYNN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And you heard him say zero containment that's pretty self-explanatory. The fire is out of control, although firefighters are struggling to establish lines of defense. Thousands of firefighters, in fact, are teaming up to battle this fire some of them from as far away as New York. Still, those power lines are in the way of the fires. And also, two towns are in the path of the wildfires they've both been evacuated.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.