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A wildfire that killed two people and destroyed more than 200 homes in the Ruidoso area last month might have been avoided if the Public Service Company of New Mexico had better maintained its powerline easements, a lawsuit contends.
The fire began April 12 when “high winds foreseeably pushed over a tall pine tree” that landed on PNM utility lines, igniting dry brush and grass below, according to a lawsuit filed by three property owners seeking damages from PNM.
The tree, “rooted in shallow soils, on a steep slope” was located near the 100 block of Warrior Drive in Ruidoso, the suit alleges.
Laura Rabon, a spokeswoman for Lincoln National Forest, said Thursday that the cause of the fire remains under investigation.
PNM spokeswoman Shannon Jackson responded that PNM had received the lawsuit.
“PNM will work with all involved parties in this litigation,” Jackson said in a written statement.
A U.S. Forest Service assessment issued this month said the McBride Fire started near Warrior and Gavilan Canyon road in the Village of Ruidoso. The cause remains under investigation.
Strong winds spread the McBride Fire quickly, destroying 207 primary residences and blackening 6,246 acres, including more than 4,500 acres in the Lincoln National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service reported.
An elderly couple were killed April 12 when the fire destroyed their home at 569 Gavilan Canyon Road.
Wind gusts up to 80 mph and extremely dry conditions contributed to the fire’s rapid spread and ferocity.
The 2nd Judicial District Court lawsuit was filed by James Karr of Lubbock, Texas, and Jerry and Debye Cox of Henderson County, Texas. The three owned “vacation trailers and related property” destroyed by the fire at 530 Gavilan Canyon Road in Ruidoso.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for destroyed property. It identifies as defendants PNM and PNM Resources Inc.
It also names as a defendant Trees Inc., described in the suit as a Houston-based company under contract with PNM to cull trees and brush in PNM powerline easements and rights-of-way.
Trees Inc. officials did not immediately respond Thursday to requests for comment.
The firms had an obligation to maintain trees and vegetation near electrical transmission lines, the suit alleges.
“PNM knew that vegetation maintenance was critical to control fire damage,” the suit said.
“PNM took a calculated risk that loss of life and damage to private property may occur if it failed to act appropriately in regard to vegetation maintenance,” it said. “It bet that it could reduce its cost by ignoring some hazardous vegetation threatening its electric system, while still meeting its reliability obligation to the state of New Mexico.”