NM electric co-op gets $38M bill for wildfire

The U.S. Forest Service has billed New Mexico’s largest rural electric cooperative more than $38 million to cover costs stemming from one of the largest wildfires in the state’s history.

The federal agency is seeking reimbursement from the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative for costs related to firefighting efforts on the 2011 Las Conchas Fire and work to rehabilitate damaged public lands, The Santa Fe New Mexican reported.

The electric co-op has already been targeted in lawsuits by two pueblos, dozens of individual property owners and several insurance companies over the fire. The Forest Service is also named in some of those claims.

The blaze started in June 2011 when a tree fell on a power line owned by the co-op. More than five dozen structures were destroyed and 243 square miles were charred.

The downed tree was outside the 20-foot-wide easement for the power line, which the Santa Fe National Forest granted to the cooperative through the area. The easement also crosses through some private properties.

Property owners blame the co-op for not properly clearing away trees that were tall enough to fall on the line. They blame the Forest Service for not giving the cooperative a wide enough easement to prevent such problems.

The Forest Service confirmed it sent the debt notice and bill of nearly $38.3 million to the co-op on Jan. 31, 2013.

Ernesto Gonzales, the co-op’s general manager, told the Journal Friday the co-op would like to see an itemized bill that outlines in detail how the Forest Service assessed the costs. He said the bill has been submitted to the co-op’s insurance company.

Jemez Mountains has been billed for as much as $2 million by the Forest Service for previous wildfires. Gonzales he was not aware of any payments ever being made on the bills.

He also reiterated that the tree that fell on power lines and started the Las Conchas fire was on private property outside the power line easement. “We have no right to trim trees outside the easement,” Gonzales said.

The Forest Service can charge individuals or entities for the costs of fighting wildfires and for damage to public lands if the agency’s investigators believe there’s enough evidence to hold them responsible.

“There are several instances of this from different fires throughout the country,” said Denise Ottaviano, a spokeswoman with the Santa Fe National Forest. She added that the claims office at the Albuquerque Service Center for Budget and Finance aggressively pursues debts owed the government pursuant to federal regulations.

Ottaviano said the claims officer has the authority to decide if, based on investigative reports, “there is a substantial likelihood” that someone acted negligently or otherwise unlawfully caused damage to Forest Service resources.

Recovering firefighting costs is critical to the agency. In 2011 and 2012, fire suppression costs on public lands ate up $1.4 billion of the Forest Service budget, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Suppression costs for the Las Conchas Fire topped $41 million.

The Forest Service often negotiates with entities it bills for damage to public lands. If no deal is reached, the agency can refer delinquent debts to the U.S. Department of Justice for a possible civil lawsuit or to the U.S. Department of Treasury for collection.

Any such deal in connection with the Las Conchas Fire is still likely months away, because the electric cooperative and the Forest Service will be in court with other parties, sorting out responsibility and damage associated with the fire.

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