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Power lines continue to cause major fires in NM; How can these fires be prevented?

SANTA FE, N.M. — While fire management officials are working on how to attack two major wildfires in northern New Mexico, others are focusing on what can be done to prevent more fires from starting the same way in the future.

Both the Tres Lagunas Fire north of Pecos and the Thompson Ridge Fire northeast of Jemez Springs were determined to be caused by sparking from power lines that came down in windy conditions. The 2011 Las Conchas Fire, the largest recorded fire in state history, having burned more than 150,000 acres, was also ignited by a tree falling onto a power line.

Is there something the state Public Regulation Commission, tasked with regulating utility companies, can do about the problem?

“Absolutely we can, and we’d like to make that effort,” said Valerie Espinoza, District 3 commissioner and vice-chair of the PRC, who attended a press briefing for the Tres Lagunas Fire on Monday morning. “This isn’t the first or the last time that this has happened. I think we can do more to ensure that we have safe electrical lines and that the co-op’s have the resources they need to be better prepared to do their jobs.”

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The Tres Lagunas blaze started last Thursday afternoon when a private power line running from a distribution pole to a home on N.M. 63 about 10 miles north of Pecos in the Mora-San Miguel Electric Cooperative service area was knocked down by strong winds. By Monday evening, fire had consumed nearly 8,500 acres. The following day, a power line owned by the Jemez Mountains Electric Co-op fell, igniting a fire that has burned more than 3,200 acres near La Cueva.

The Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative is already facing at least two lawsuits stemming from the Las Conchas Fire, one filed by insurance companies and a few individuals, and the other by nearly 40 customers, who are also member-owners of the rural electric utility. The co-op contends that it is not liable because the aspen that fell onto the power line to the Las Conchas Fire was located outside an easement boundary.

Rose Marie Law, acting general manager for Jemez Mountains Electric, said Monday that the easement widths are set at 10 feet on each side of the center for distribution lines and 20 feet in each direction for the higher voltage transmission lines. Those specifications, she said, are set by the USDA Rural Utilities Service. Utility companies can request a wider right of way across certain sections, but it’s not easy to get those approved, she said.

“The issues we’re having right now (are) trying to get consensus from the Forest Service,” Law said, adding that regulations make it difficult to get approval. “Just to renew a special permit, we’re looking at having to go through an environmental assessment, and that’s just to maintain the right of way.”

Endangered species involved

The Endangered Species Act also figures into it. “To go out another 20 feet or more probably wouldn’t do any good because of the endangered species that are out there, the owls and lizards,” she said. “If anything were to change, it would have to come down from the federal level.”

It would also take a huge effort to increase the easement widths, she said. Jemez Mountains co-op, which serves 33,661 customers in five counties, eight Indian pueblos, and parts of the Navajo and Jicarilla Apache nations, has more than 4,000 miles of distribution line.

Officials with Mora-San Miguel Electric Co-op, which serves nearly 11,000 customers with more than 1,900 miles of distribution line, on Monday afternoon did not return phone messages from the Journal. Kit Carson Electric, based in Taos, hasn’t had a forest fire issue lately. But it has more than 2,700 miles of distribution line, much of it through the Santa Fe and Carson national forests, and is susceptible as a source for wildfire.

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General Manager Luis Reyes, who accompanied Espinoza to the Pecos briefing, said wider easements are what it will take to prevent power line-caused fires.

“The fix is getting federal agencies involved to get wider right of ways,” he said. “We need wider rights of way along established roads, and the policy should be to clear cut, not trim.”

Reyes said Kit Carson employs two full-time crews whose job it is to trim or cut down trees. A contracted service is also utilized when needed, he said.

Last year, Kit Carson spent about $400,000 on tree trimming, he said.

“And that was over budget by 20 percent,” he said. “We’ll probably spend the same amount this year because we are sensitive to trees falling on power lines.”

Reyes said it’s not practical to bury power lines. “It would be cost prohibitive. It costs about $100,000 per mile to bury the lines,” he said. “PNM could turn to its stockholders to pay the costs, but the co-op model is a lot tougher because the cost would have to be shared by all members of the co-op. It would make power unaffordable.”

Reyes had two other suggestions for solving the problem.

One, educate the public about the importance of keeping trees from growing into power lines. He said some property owners simply don’t want their trees cut down, even if they are interfering with power lines and present a hazard.

The other is to appeal to lawmakers to get the regulations changed. “People can petition their elected officials to have the right of ways widened. Then maybe a lot of this could be avoided,” he said.

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