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A wildfire that killed an elderly couple and destroyed more than 200 homes near Ruidoso in April was caused by Public Service Company of New Mexico’s failure to properly maintain vegetation near its power lines, according to a lawsuit filed by a California-based law firm.
The lawsuit filed Friday on behalf of Ruidoso property owners is the second such lawsuit filed this year alleging that PNM and a contractor negligently failed to prevent a tree from falling on utility lines, igniting the April 12 blaze.
Attorneys for the utility responded in July to the earlier lawsuit that “a tall and healthy pine tree outside of PNM’s right-of-way” blew over in a strong wind, striking a power line and apparently igniting the fire.
PNM spokesman Ray Sandoval said Monday that the utility uses “vegetation management and wildfire mitigation practices that comply with all applicable authorities.” He also said that the cause of the fire remains under investigation.
A spokeswoman for the New Mexico Forestry Division, the agency investigating the McBride Fire, asked the Journal to submit an Inspection of Public Records Act request seeking information about the cause of the fire. The agency did not immediately respond to the request on Monday.
The new 2nd Judicial District Court suit was filed by Singleton Schreiber, a San Diego-based law firm, on behalf of the owners of 26 properties in the Ruidoso area damaged by the 6,159-acre fire. The suit seeks unspecified damages.
PNM failed to properly inspect and report hazardous vegetation around its power lines and failed to protect PNM facilities “from tall, nearby pine trees, rooted in shallow soils, on a steep slope,” the suit alleges.
“PNM’s failure to abide by state laws during repairs, construction and maintenance put the public at risk,” said Vern Payne, a Los Lunas attorney for Singleton Schreiber who filed the lawsuit. “Making matters worse, they were made aware of these dangerous conditions and their subsequent behavior actually contributed to the size and spread of this fire.”
Powerful winds spread the McBride Fire quickly, destroying 207 primary residences and blackening more than 6,000 acres, including more than 4,500 acres in the Lincoln National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service has 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 earlier lawsuit, filed in April, is still pending in 2nd Judicial District Court. It was filed by three Texas residents who owned “vacation trailers and related property” destroyed by the fire at 530 Gavilan Canyon Road in Ruidoso.
Both suits also name as a defendant Trees Inc., a Houston-based company under contract with PNM to cull vegetation in PNM easements.
Trees Inc. officials did not immediately respond Monday to requests for comment.