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CHAPTER 18 - WILDLAND FIREFIGHTER WORKING WITH APS TO STOP FIREs BY ALEXIS BECHMAN

A member of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew, Wade Ward, stepped away from front line firefighting after suffering the loss of 19 members during the Yarnell Hill Fire.

Fortunately, Arizona Public Service (APS) needed someone just like him.

Ward now works as a fire mitigation specialist for APS, working to prevent wildfires and when they do occur, keeping them from causing power outages.

APS created the position around Ward’s unique history and expertise — something he earned fighting fires as a City of Prescott firefighter and Hotshot member.

The rising threat of megafires poses a major threat to vital infrastructure every year, forcing utility companies, like APS, to take action on their own to mitigate the threat.

Under Ward’s leadership, APS crews are now clearing vegetation away from power lines and are equipped to stop small fires from spreading.

Wildfires are a huge threat to the electrical grid, said Annie DeGraw, communications consultant with APS.

They start as a spark. Sometimes far out in the forest. Lightning will strike a tree and a fire will smolder and smoke and then grow, sometimes consuming thousands of acres, homes and lives in its path before firefighters can wrangle it to the ground. Often, the cause remains unknown. The Goodwin Fire started in the Prescott area in June in an area of land untouched by maintenance for nearly 50 years. It grew to 28,500 acres.

As the blaze grew, APS gradually de-energized any power lines either in the fire’s path or in the way of firefighters trying to work ahead of the flames for their safety. Thick smoke can cause electricity to arc between lines, blowing out power lines and endangering firefighters on the ground.

With his firefighting background, Ward works closely with the Forest Service during wildfires and helps decide when lines should be powered down for crew safety. In the Goodwin Fire, APS power lines were burning. Ward requested crews to help put out the fires. Knowing he had a firefighting background, the Forest Service gave him a crew and a helicopter to direct.

Justin Plain, with the Tonto National Forest, said the relationship with Ward is crucial in fighting wildland fires. When a fire starts, the men, who have known each other for years, can talk candidly about how crews are fighting it or letting it burn — firefighter to firefighter. That level of trust from firefighters is not something a corporate representative is granted easily.

But Ward understands how a fire burns, how it moves.

And Ward also understands that firefighting is a brotherhood built on mutual trust. They must rely on each other or risk injury and death. And Plain knows Ward’s top priority is always the crew’s safety.

If a fire starts within five miles of a power line, fire commanders call Ward.

If the Forest Service would like to let a fire burn, Plain coordinates with Ward to move power to other lines so service is not interrupted.

While the Forest Service had a contact with APS before, it was not a dedicated position like Ward’s.

“It has been a huge benefit to us,” Plain said.

And their partnership goes beyond wildfires. Ward is working closely with the Forest Service on prescribed burns and clearing.

Under his leadership, APS crews are now clearing 10 feet around all poles — a defensible space. This protects APS’s power lines and often provides a fuel break.

APS is the largest rural utility company in the state, with 375,000 poles.

“That is 375,000 opportunities for a spark,” he said. Crews head out every day to remove overgrowth under these poles.

In Payson, his work is evident.

Under the power lines by Gila Community College, there is a clear, open path under all of the poles. In Star Valley, crews have marked with red spray paint any vegetation that needs to come out from under poles.

Sometimes, while crews are out clearing brush, they come across brush fires. That happened in Show Low, and they work to put the fire out before it becomes unmanageable.

Crews now carry five gallons of water, two fire extinguishers, a backup pump and hand tools on all vehicles. Workers are also certified in wildland CPR.

When a worker comes across a fire, Ward has trained them to first, call and report it. They then are asked to consider the worst thing that can happen and what they can do to protect themselves and others.

“No equipment or personnel is worth the risk of being trapped,” according to training material. Workers then consider communication, escape routes, tools and manpower available. If a fire is greater than two feet by two feet with flame lengths greater than two feet, APS personnel should not attempt to fight it as it is beyond the incipient stage.

As part of Ward’s mitigation efforts, APS crews not only clear the vegetation under poles in the forest, but in communities. This often means they have to work with homeowners when clearing vegetation on personal property under lines.

Ward said they try to educate homeowners about the importance of creating a defensible space around the poles as well as in their yards.

Ward has seen how fire can devastate a community.

Ward spent his entire firefighting career in Prescott — an area rocked by multiple wildfires. He worked as a public information officer for the Prescott Fire Department, but doesn’t like to talk about the fire now.

Ward would say he got into firefighting to help people after he went through several tragedies, including an accident that paralyzed his father.

Out of high school, he worked as a photojournalist. During one call, Ward arrived on the scene of a head-on accident involving an SRP truck. Ward took pictures of the scene and waited for help to arrive. Afterwards, he realized he wanted to be on the side helping and not just observing.

During any situation, he found he had the ability to be “really calm.” So he went to the fire academy and became a firefighter.

Ward recently met his counterpart at SRP and learned the two men in the truck that night not only survived that accident, but were still with the company and the incident was now used as a training tool.

One day, Ward said he would like to meet those men.

“Everything has come full circle,” he said.

Spark by Pia Wyer

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