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A state investigator found that a fire that killed an elderly couple and destroyed more than 200 homes in the Ruidoso area was started by a tree falling on power lines – the cause alleged in two lawsuits against Public Service Company of New Mexico.
Strong, gusty winds toppled a drought-stressed tree on April 12, causing electrical lines to arc and igniting the McBride Fire, according to a report issued by the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
The agency released the report to the Journal this past week in response to a request under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.
Scott Chalmers, the agency’s wildland fire investigator, said he found the toppled 49-foot-tall tree hung up in power lines at the fire’s point of origin near Ruidoso Middle School and the McBride residential area.
“The investigation determined that the McBride Fire started due to a ponderosa pine tree coming into contact with a (PNM) power distribution line, causing a wildfire to ignite in the seasonally dried grasses, shrubs and timber,” Chalmers wrote in the June 29 report.
The McBride Fire has spawned two lawsuits filed on behalf of dozens of Ruidoso property owners alleging that PNM and a contractor caused the fire by failing to properly maintain trees and vegetation near its power lines.
PNM has responded in court records that the “tall healthy pine tree” that struck the electrical lines was located outside of PNM’s right-of-way and denied any fault or wrongdoing by the company.
“One of the reasons we have a legal process is for all issues to be brought forth,” PNM spokesman Raymond Sandoval said in a written statement Thursday. “None of us should get ahead of the process.”
Wind speeds in Ruidoso on April 12 reached 42 mph, with gusts up to 80 mph. Windy and dry conditions caused the fire to spread quickly, blackening 4,000 acres by that evening, and more than 6,000 acres by April 16.
The fire was first reported about 2:30 p.m. April 12 burning on the north side of Warrior Drive and quickly led to the evacuation of several Ruidoso schools and residential areas. The fire’s rapid spread prompted officials to request fire crews, helicopters and a Type 1 incident management team.
On April 13, officials found the remains of an elderly couple who died while trying to evacuate their burning home in the 500 block of Gavilan Canyon Road.
A New Mexico Forestry Division employee who examined the fallen tree found evidence that it was drought stressed and had a shallow tap root indicating that it had grown in thin, rocky soil, the report said.
The tree was found hung up in four intact power lines supported by wooden poles. The tree showed “numerous blackened and charred marks that appeared consistent with electrical arcing.”