The Golden State burns: California faces extreme forest fires


Special to El Diablo

Wildfires raged on in California for most of October, destroying homes and properties. At least 5,700 building were lost and there are 21 confirmed deaths.

Kate Mckinnis, Reporter

Many wildfires can be prevented, but when something that should be safe goes wrong, the consequences can be severe. In California, new evidence from fire forensics shows that a power line may be to blame for a section of the fire. A dry tree fell on the power line which caught the tree on fire, allowing the flames to reach the ground and spread.

Dan Harms, an LPEA employee since 1996, began his work there as a senior in high school with an internship. Harms is a system engineer and looks over the different components of the power lines. He checks the breakers and makes sure that the transformers are up and running. If there is a problem with the system and technology, Harms is there to fix the issue.

Harms graduated from Colorado State University with a bachelor of science in electrical engineering. “I just fell in love with the electrical part of it and to decide what I wanted to do with my life I flipped a coin. I’m glad it landed on tails,” Harms explained.

Harms described that “ [the] power lines have these little boxes called breakers and that they are in charge of recognizing faults on the power line. If a bird or some type of interference lands on the line the breakers will stop the electricity from moving down the line.”

Mercury News, a news feed in San Jose, California, has released information that a power line failed to open and close and electricity continued to run down the line. This allowed the electricity to run through a tree and reach the dry grass.

Harms explained that the rule for a power line running through forest, must have at least 50 feet on either side of the power line. However, many power lines run through front lawns of people’s homes.

“We have to keep our customers happy, but also try and prevent wildfires from happening, like the one in California,” said Harms.

However, this wasn’t the only time a breaker failed to do it’s job. In New Mexico a several years ago, a hawk was looking for food and caught a snake. The two of them accidently hit a power line and caught on fire. The snake and bird fell and created a large forest fire.

Although every power company has many different ways to prevent fires, they still do have high risk days, which can cause sparks to arise from the lines. Many of the workers at LPEA carry fire extinguishers in their trucks just in case.

“LPEA runs a tree cutting program, where the workers go and make sure trees are not interfering with the lines or other possible fire starters. However, there are some times when our lines run through our customers front yards,” said Harms.

Many times the homeowners don’t want their trees trimmed and won’t allow the 50 feet rule to happen. It can become hard for LPEA to keep their customers happy while at the same time, keep the rest of Durango safe.

One of the main fires that caused the entire town to suffer was the 2002 Missionary Ridge fire, which was started from a spark from an unknown source. This fire caused many to flee from their homes and because of the drought, the fire was able to spread quickly. The Missionary Ridge fire burned for 39 days and with it, took many trees along the ridge.

A more recent fire that faced Durango was the Lightner Fire, which took place the summer of 2017. This was caused because a house caught fire and was burning in a high fuel loaded area. The fire consumed 250 acres with it and caused 150+ people to evacuate their homes.

Durango has many ways to avoid fires like these and LPEA does everything they can to help prevent them. From doing line checks every now and then, they keep the lines clear and free of harm. Although, sometimes things don’t always work out they way people want them to.

“So many things can lead to a fire, but the power lines that run through a town are often left to blame,” Harms said, “Humans make mistakes, but when we do it often leads to big consequences.”