Jury finds power companies mostly liable for Las Conchas Fire

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

A jury found two power companies were mostly liable for starting the 2011 Las Conchas Fire northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico that burned 63 structures and 156,000 acres.

Two companies and the U.S. Forest Service share the responsibility for the fire that began when an aspen tree fell into a power line.

Below is an excerpt from an AP article:

Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative operated and maintained the power lines. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Inc. provides the cooperative with electricity.

Jurors in Sandoval County District Court found the cooperative was 75 percent negligent for the wildfire, Tri-State 20 percent and the U.S. Forest Service 5 percent.

The amount of monetary damages will be determined at a later trial.

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)

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged Las Conchas Fire.

USFS bills power company $38 million for starting Las Conchas Fire

Las Conchas fire
Las Conchas Fire, 7-14-2011. Photo by Andrew Ashcraft, Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The U.S. Forest Service has sent a $38 million bill to the electric cooperative that operated the power line that started the Las Conchas Fire in June, 2011. The blaze burned 156,000 acres and 63 structures in the Jemez Mountains west of Los Alamos, New Mexico near the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

An interagency investigative team led by New Mexico State Forestry determined that the fire was caused by a fallen tree that caught fire after coming into contact with nearby power lines, according to New Mexico State Forester Tony Delfin.

In addition to the USFS, others seeking compensation from the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative include two pueblos, several insurance companies, and dozens of property owners. Some of the claims also name the USFS which granted the power company an easement for the power line.

Photos taken by Andrew Ashcraft, a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots

Las Conchas Fire, July 14, 2011, Photo by Andrew Ashcraft

Kelly pointed out to us today that when she read our article about the “tar balls” that were discovered in smoke from the Las Conchas Fire and followed the link to other articles tagged “Las Conchas Fire”, she recognized a name, Andrew Ashcraft.

Andrew Ashcraft
Andrew Ashcraft

He was one of the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots that were killed June 30, 2013 on the Yarnell Hill Fire.

One of the articles with the “Las Conchas” tag had a photo that was taken by Mr. Ashcraft. In 2011 he sent us three photos that he took at the fire, apparently using his cell phone. Even though it was four months after the fire, we published one of them on October 17, 2011, the day he sent them to us. It is the one at the top of this article. The other two are below.

He was 29 when he died, in his third season with the Granite Mountain Hotshots after having won Rookie of the Year honors in 2011. He loved running a chain saw.

According to the New York Times, on the evening of June 29 “he returned home from two weeks fighting another fire, arriving just in time to tuck the children into bed. The next morning at 5:20, he kissed his wife goodbye and headed back to the station.” That was the last time they saw each other, but he texted her several times that day, and attached photos of the fire he took with his cell phone.

We embedded a very moving interview with his wife on July 2. She is now a single mother of four children all under the age of six. The Daily Mail has a long article about the tragedy, with much of it being about the Ashcraft family. The story has a copy of another cell phone photo Mr. Ashcraft took that you probably have seen — the one of the Yarnell Hill Fire that he texted to his wife about an hour or so before the 19 firefighters were overrun by the fire.

Las Conchas Fire, July 14, 2011, Photo by Andrew Ashcraft

Las Conchas Fire, July 14, 2011, Photo by Andrew Ashcraft

Research: wildland fire smoke, including tar balls, contribute to climate change more than previously thought

Manvendra Dubey
Manvendra Dubey

As soon as they were able to repopulate the facility after being evacuated due to the huge Las Conchas Fire in 2011, scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico set up an extensive aerosol sampling system to monitor the smoke from the smoldering fire for more than 10 days.  The team used field-emission scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive X ray spectroscopy to analyze the aerosol samples and determined that spherical carbonaceous particles they called “tar balls” were 10 times more abundant than soot. The Los Alamos scientists were the first to discover tar balls and coated soot.

Senior laboratory scientist Manvedra Dubey noted that, “Most climate assessment models treat fire emissions as a mixture of pure soot and organic carbon aerosols that offset the respective warming and cooling effects of one another on climate. However Las Conchas results show that tar balls exceed soot by a factor of 10 and the soot gets coated by organics in fire emissions, each resulting in more of a warming effect than is currently assumed.” He said this should have a huge impact on how the aerosols are treated in computer models.

These photos of soot particles from the Las Conchas Fire are from a paper written by Mr. Debey and the three other scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory listed below.

Bare soot particle
Bare soot particle. Los Alamos National Laboratory image.
Embedded soot particle
Embedded soot particle. Los Alamos National Laboratory image.

Mr. Dubey, along with postdoctoral fellow Allison Aiken and post-bachelor’s student Kyle Gorkowski, coordinated with Michigan Tech professor Claudio Mazzoleni (a former Los Alamos Director’s fellow) and graduate student Swarup China to perform the study.

This week on Twitter Mr. Dubey solicited and then answered questions about his fire smoke research:

Lab Chat Q&A Summary

Continue reading “Research: wildland fire smoke, including tar balls, contribute to climate change more than previously thought”

Extracting an injured firefighter – in 2 hours and 15 minutes

Las Conchas Fire extractionThe Wildfire Lessons Learned Center has released a video documenting the extraction of an injured firefighter from the 2011 Las Conchas Fire in northern New Mexico. Kenny Lovell of the Craig Interagency Hotshots is interviewed in the video and tells his story of being seriously injured, treated, and transported after being hit by a rolling rock. He suffered a broken pelvis, a broken fibula, and a large hematoma.

The title of the video, ROCK! Firefighter Extraction Success Story, describes the incident as a success. It was, in the sense that the Hotshot crew had access to equipment which was transported to the accident scene to treat and package the victim, there were several EMTs on the crew, the Hotshots had drilled for similar incidents, a helicopter with short haul capability was available, and 5 months later Mr. Lovell returned to work on the Hotshot crew. All that is great and the Hotshots and the helitack crew deserve praise for accomplishing what they did with the resources that were available..

Having said that, it is still troubling that 2 hours and 15 minutes elapsed before Mr. Lovell departed the accident scene in a helicopter, and 30 minutes later he arrived at a hospital. On the Deer Park fire in 2010 a firefighter with a broken femur was on the ground for 4 hours and 23 minutes before he was transported in a helicopter. And firefighter Andrew Palmer, who bled to death from a broken femur suffered on a fire in 2008, spent 2 hours and 51 minutes at the accident scene before he was extracted via hoist on a Coast Guard helicopter.

Agencies who place firefighters in remote areas should realize they have the ethical responsibility to supply the training, equipment, and aviation resources to at least begin transporting by air a seriously injured firefighter within an hour. I am surprised that OSHA has not cited the federal agencies for this. Of course getting injured firefighters to an appropriate hospital within the Golden Hour would be ideal, but depending on the distance involved that could be difficult. A helicopter with short haul capability can be helpful, but it is not the quickest or most efficient method for extracting an injured person. It involves several steps, especially, like in this case, when the helicopter responds to the scene without being fully configured for short haul.

Several agencies have helicopters with hoists which can quickly extract and then transport injured personnel from remote locations, including CAL FIRE, Los Angeles County Fire Department, and the Coast Guard. If the other federal and state agencies decided to take that step, it would not have to be a trial program with one helicopter like the U.S. Forest Service night flying helicopter effort this year, because other agencies have been using hoists (and night vision goggles) for decades,

“The organization is ethically and morally obligated to put an EMS program in place that is supported by the organization, and given the standardized training and equipment to make the program succeed.”

The above is from the 2010 facilitated learning analysis for the Deer Park Fire extraction, quoting a Senior Firefighter/Paramedic on the Sawtooth Helitack Crew.


Thanks go out to Brit