Ranch owner says Las Conchas fire might have been averted

Las Conchas fire near origin
Start of the Las Conchas fire
The Las Conchas fire, taken at 1:44 p.m. June 26, 2011, approximately 45 minutes after it started. Photo: Michael Grady

The Associated Press has widely distributed a story with the headline “Largest fire in NM history might have been averted”. The article quotes Albuquerque real estate agent Roger Cox who owns the 200-acre ranch near where the largest fire in New Mexico history started:

If there had been someone to attend to it when the power line got hit, there would have been no fire. It would have been a small burn, but there wouldn’t be a big fire. We didn’t have anybody there when the fire started. It’s not like we started a campfire that started a wildfire. The tree broke the wire and started the fire. There is nobody at fault. It is just an act of God that caused it, and it’s a horrible thing, but that’s it.

Mr. Cox goes on to explain that the ranch’s caretaker had gone to Los Alamos to run an errand and returned just in time to evacuate their 10 horses and 20 steers.

New Mexico State Forestry reported on July 3 that a powerline caused the Las Conchas fire:

Investigators believe the fire started after an aspen tree was blown down onto nearby power lines during a period of strong winds. The contact resulted in the line arcing, which then caused the tree to catch fire. Heat and flame caused the line to snap, which then allowed the burning tree to fall onto the ground where the fire spread into nearby vegetation.

The photo of the fire above taken by Mike Grady approximately 45 minutes after the fire started, shows that it was well established at that time and was being influenced by a strong wind. InciWeb states the fire started at “approximately 1:00 p.m.” June 26. On that day the records of the Tower weather station about 5 miles west of the fire’s origin show that at 1:21 p.m. the relative humidity was 6%, the temperature was 90, and the wind was out of the west at 19 mph gusting up to 41 mph.

Weather data Tower Wx station 6-26-2011
Weather data from the Tower RAWS weather station June 26, 2011

Under those weather conditions it is doubtful that a ranch caretaker could have detected, gathered fire suppression equipment, traveled to, and then put out a fire being pushed by 19 to 40 mph winds adjacent to an arcing powerline.

Las Conchas fire near origin
Firefighters meet at a ranch in the Jemez Mountains where the Las Conchas fire started. Photo: Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

Before it was picked up by the Associated Press, the article was originally written by Julie Ann Grimm for The New Mexican, where the headline does not say the fire could have been “averted”, but says “Co-owner of ranch near start of fire says caretaker was gone when tree ignited”.

It is unfortunate that the New Mexican and the Associated Press (especially) give so much credence to the statements of a real estate agent, and such fire suppression capability to a ranch caretaker. The fire could have been averted if the caretaker had not been running errands? Doubtful.

Other photos of the fire taken by Mike Grady during the early stages of the fire.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on “Ranch owner says Las Conchas fire might have been averted”

  1. Thank you, sir, for your article. I am married to the caretaker of the property and was with him during the evacuation. You are correct when you say that there was very little we could do. We would have been two people with a hose and shovels battling a fire in 40 mph winds. Again, thank you for coming to my husband’s defense.

  2. The Huck fire just south of Yellowstone in 1988 was started by a tree on a power line. We watched it start from a very near-by helibase, less then a mile. Despite a instant response by a medium bucket helicopter doing 5 minute drop cycles and a IA ground attack within 20 minutes it went to a wind driven, running, long distance spotting crown fire in a few minutes. Very low RH, tinder dry fuels and ideal fire weather all made it un-stopable. It was one wild show to watch. Glad we were up wind with the Snake River between us and the fire.

    I do not think anyone went after the power company on that one

  3. On most Federal lands in the western US, when a Power Company is given a right-of-way for a power line, it is responsible for any fires. It’s their jobs to inspect the power line and trees adjacent to the line. It will be interesting to see in the State of New Mexico, given the attitude of their new Governor, pursues cost recovery against the Power Company (it’s a State fire, and today’s Sit Report shows costs of $34.9 million to date). But then, it might be easier to ask Fed FEMA to bail them out (at 75%) and not embarass the Power Company? Regardless, all indications are that that fire was going to run regardless of any IA attempt.


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