PHOENIX -- Fires at an electric substation in western Maricopa County burned themselves out, officials said Tuesday. The substation fire, coupled with scorching temperatures and thousands returning to work after the holiday, could lead to power outages in the East Valley this week unless customers conserve electricity.
Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project want residents Valleywide to turn up their thermostats to 82 degrees and otherwise reduce energy usage this week to avoid rotating 30- to 60-minute electricity shutdowns.
"We are going to be pushed to the limit (today)," said APS spokesman Alan Bunnell. "If we are not able to have voluntary conservation that is effective, we could be faced with having to have service interruption."
The disabled 13-transformer Westwing substation is straining the power grid, making the three remaining APS sub-stations work harder to distribute electricity around the Valley. If residents continue to consume power at normal rates this week, the system may not be able to handle it, Bunnell said.
It’s not yet known what sparked the blaze at about 7 p.m. Sunday at the substation near Loop 303 and Happy Valley Road. Firefighters from 10 departments fought it overnight, but it engulfed four of the transformers. The Rural/ Metro Fire Department took over the fire Monday and was allowing the transformers to burn themselves out, said Kore Redden, an assistant fire chief.
"There’s no way to fight a fire like that," Redden said. "If we drown this with water and foam, we are creating one big toxic waste dump."
About 100,000 gallons of mineral oil, used to cool the transformers, continued to smolder late Monday. Billowing black smoke and flames had subsided by the afternoon, but it could take the rest of the week before the fire burns itself out, officials said.
The power companies also are closely watching wildfires near Payson because of a transmission line that cuts through the area to bring power to the Valley. The transmission line connects the Valley to the Cholla Power Plant near Joseph City and the Four Corners Power Plant in Farmington, N.M.
The Westwind substation fire caught the attention of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Redden said.
"That is their standard operating procedure, to rule out anything suspicious. And they did," she said.
Residents are asked to reduce their electrical demand, particularly during the peak periods of 4 to 6 p.m., this week.
Running the dishwasher, the pool pump and the clothes washer during the evening hours didn’t cramp the style of several East Valley residents. But turning the thermostat up to 82 degrees proved to be a deal breaker for some.
"I can handle it, but my husband is the problem," said Jennifer Buchanan of Gilbert. She figures they could compromise at about 79 degrees.
For Tami Norton and her family, cranking up the thermostat will make things quite uncomfortable in their trilevel Gilbert home.
"But I’d rather be a little warm than have no electricity," she said.
Request: APS and SRP ask customers to conserve energy:
• Raise thermostat settings to no lower than 82 degrees
• Turn off extra lights and all other major appliances that you absolutely do not need
• Avoid operating pool pumps and using clothes dryers, washers and dishwashers during the peak hours of 4 to 6 p.m.