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Civil trial over liability for Las Conchas Fire to begin

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

On June 26, 2011, a gust of mountain wind sent a 60-foot aspen tree crashing down onto power lines that stretch through a portion of Forest Service land in the Jemez Mountains, sparking what was then the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.

The Las Conchas Fire grew to 156,000 acres over the next 36 days, destroying 63 homes and 49 outbuildings as it tore through portions of Jemez, Cochiti and Santo Domingo pueblos, Bandelier National Monument, Valles Caldera National Preserve as well as state and private properties, according to the federal Incident Information System.

Beginning Monday, a 12-person jury will be tasked with determining whether Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, which operated and maintained the power lines that the tree fell onto, and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Inc., the company from which the cooperative buys electricity, should be held liable for their roles in the fire. The defendants state in court documents that the fire was “an act of God” that was unforeseeable.

The case’s more than 300 plaintiffs, which include Cochiti and Jemez pueblos, along with multiple insurance companies, property owners and businesses, seek redress for property damage, business interruption and related losses resulting from the wildfire and subsequent erosion and flooding. It condenses several lawsuits filed over the past few years.

Charred tree trunks were left in the wake of the Las Conchas Fire, which burned 156,000 acres in the summer of 2011

Charred tree trunks were left in the wake of the Las Conchas Fire, which burned 156,000 acres in the summer of 2011. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

At question over the course of the six-week trial before District Judge Louis McDonald is whether the defendants should have removed or otherwise prevented the 60-foot tree, which was located on private property outside of the 20-foot-wide right of way, from falling on the power lines.

Defendants report that they did not have a duty nor permission to enter private land in order to remove the tree and additionally that there is no way the companies could have known that the tree, which had a “green canopy,” posed any threat.

The New Mexico State Forestry Division, which conducted the investigation that determined the fire’s cause, reported that rotting at the tree’s base made it unstable.

Through a Forest Service special use permit, the companies were allowed to run power lines through portions of the Santa Fe National Forest, including the area where the fire originated, near the Las Conchas Trailhead, located off of N.M. 4 between Los Alamos and Jemez Springs.

The suit alleges that the special use permit required the cooperative to “identify and seek to abate hazardous conditions,” and “take all reasonable precautions to prevent forest fires, to clear the right of way and to remove all trees which were leaning toward the transmission lines on or adjacent to the right of way, and to observe other fire precautions as may be required.”

It suggests that the JMEC or Tri-State should have moved the electrical lines underground or installed circuit-breaking mechanisms that would have cut off power when the trees and limbs made contact with the lines.

In an answer to the complaint filed in district court in September 2012, JMEC says the tree in question was located about 50 feet outside of the company’s right of way, and it claims that it had no knowledge of the specific tree.

The Journal attempted to reach several of the attorneys involved in the case, but they did not return calls or declined to comment.

Jury selection in the trial begins Monday at the Sandoval County District Courthouse. Depending on the outcome of the trial, a second trial may be scheduled to determine what damages, if any, the defendants must pay.

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