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Calming Winds Reduce Blackout Threat From Arizona Wildfire

El Paso Electric Co. said calming winds have reduced the threat of power blackouts from an Arizona wildfire that has burned an area twice the size of New York City.

The Wallow fire remained about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from a high-voltage transmission line that delivers 40 percent of the power used by El Paso Electric’s customers, according to a statement posted late today on the company’s website. The line delivers power from Palo Verde, the largest U.S. nuclear plant, to 371,000 homes and businesses in western Texas and southeastern New Mexico.

“We are still monitoring the situation and preparing in the event that we lose transmission,” Teresa Souza, a company spokeswoman, said today in a phone interview. The company, based in El Paso, Texas, is working with other utilities to route power on alternative paths to limit potential blackouts, she said.

Firefighters had been able to contain about 5 percent of the 408,887-acre (165,471-hectare) blaze on its northeast side as of 1:42 p.m. local time today, according to a government incident report. Officials have ordered seven Arizona towns to be evacuated.

The fire, east of Phoenix, has so far destroyed 29 homes, according to the report. Officials earlier said 67 homes had been destroyed, which was a reporting error, said Susan Zornek, a spokeswoman for the state and federal government incident command center.

Wind-Fed Flames

High winds earlier this week fed the fire and pushed it faster across the state, hindering efforts to halt its progress. On June 8, winds were gusting up to 35 miles per hour in the vicinity of the fire at Greer, Arizona, according to the National Weather Service.

Winds began to ease yesterday, and gusts were limited to 13 miles per hour as of 1:35 p.m. local time today at Greer, located about 225 miles east of Phoenix, the weather service said.

“The lower winds have slowed the spread of the fire," Zornek said in a telephone interview. With the fire advancing more slowly, firefighters are able to get ahead of the flames to build a containment line to hold the fire in check, she said.

Power Prices Rise

Power prices at Palo Verde, a benchmark for the region, rose $4.68, or 13 percent, to $40.94 a megawatt-hour on the Intercontinental Exchange, the highest price since May 4.

The leading edge of the fire was about 8 miles from transmission lines connecting Tucson, Arizona, to two power plants, UniSource Energy Corp., owner of the city’s electric utility, said in a statement today on its website.

The section of the wildfire closest to its high-voltage wires has not advanced in several days, the utility said. Another part of the blaze further south has moved several miles closer, coming within 10 miles of lines that deliver about half of Tucson’s power needs, according to the utility.

UniSource is bringing backup power supplies online, starting local natural gas-fueled plants that don’t always run because it costs more to produce power from those units than it does to get electricity over the threatened transmission lines, Joe Salkowski, a Tucson Electric Power Co. spokesman, said today in a telephone interview. Tucson Electric also is coordinating with other utilities to provide additional sources of electricity if needed, he said.

The fire is not expected to result in financial losses that would affect the credit ratings of El Paso Electric or Tucson Electric, Standard and Poor’s said in a statement today.

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