Trial begins for power company accused of starting Las Conchas Fire

Las Conchas fire photo
The Las Conchas fire as seen from the Valles Caldera National Preserve visitor center at 3:38 p.m., June 26, 2011, about two hours after the fire started northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo: Michael Grady.

In a trial that began Thursday a power company is defending itself against charges that inadequate maintenance of their electrical line led to the 2011 Las Conchas Fire northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico that burned 63 structures and 156,000 acres.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Albuquerque Journal:

…Jurors must determine whether the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative and Tri-State Generation and Transmission should be held liable for losses sustained by the more than 300 plaintiffs, which include Jemez and Cochiti pueblos, insurance companies and business and property owners.

The blaze broke out on June 26, 2011, when an aspen tree fell onto a power line maintained by the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative. Plaintiffs’ attorney Tosdal said that Jemez and Tri-State, a cooperative that provides wholesale electric power to Jemez, both failed to adopt the procedures that could have prevented it.

But Al Green, the attorney representing the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, said the company has a tree-trimming program in place – a procedure he said is similar to that used by most American rural electric cooperatives. He also said that Rural Utility Service audits never found violations, though a 2011 audit reported that the rights of way were in need of improvement.

“The RUS didn’t think we were violating their regulation,” he said.

Tosdal showed several photos of the aspen tree that caused the fire, pointing out conks growing at the base, which he said were an indication that the tree was unhealthy and should have been removed.

Green held that it would have been impossible for company employees walking the right of way to identify the aspen, which had a green canopy, as presenting any hazard…

Las Conchas Fire, July 14, 2011, Photo by Andrew Ashcraft
Andrew Ashcraft of the Granite Mountain Hotshots took this photo of the Las Conchas Fire July 14, 2011 while the crew was holding the fireline after the Prescott Hot Shots ignited a burnout. Two years later Mr. Ashcraft was killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire. (click to enlarge)

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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.