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Consultant faults co-op in Las Conchas wildfire

An electric cooperative wasn’t following industry standards for ensuring the area along one of its power lines was clear of potentially hazardous vegetation when an aspen tree fell and sparked one of the largest wildfires in New Mexico’s recorded history, a certified arborist and consultant told jurors Tuesday.

Kevin Eckert’s testimony came in a civil case in which the jury will determine whether the co-op and the generation and transmission company that supplies it with power should be held liable for the 2011 Las Conchas Fire. Attorneys for more than 300 plaintiffs have argued that negligence by the two companies is to blame.

Eckert, who spent years developing and implementing vegetation-management programs for utilities, said there was no indication from the documents he reviewed as part of the case that the co-op had trained inspectors or a written policy.

A trained inspector would have seen the aspen tree as a potential hazard, given that it was likely leaning toward the power line before the fire and it was tall enough to strike the line even though it was on private land beyond the utility easement, he said.

The tree also showed signs of being affected by a wood-rotting fungus, Eckert said.

“It’s not if it’s going to fall. It’s when it’s going to fall,” he said, noting that old aspen trees by their nature should “send up red flags.”

Defense attorneys challenged Eckert, saying most of his experience was with investor-owned utilities, not co-ops, and that the easements he dealt with while working for utilities in New England were much wider.

Attorneys for the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association have also argued in court documents that the co-op had a tree-trimming program, that the tree’s falling could not have been foreseen and that the two companies are independent of each other.

Plaintiff’s attorney Tom Tosdal asked Eckert if he thought it would have been prudent for Tri-State to require the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative to have a vegetation management program had the generation and transmission association had control over the co-op. He answered yes.

The plaintiffs – which include two Native American pueblos, property owners, insurance companies and others – have tried to link the two companies through contracts related to the purchase and distribution of electricity.

The trial, expected to last another five weeks, is being watched closely by rural electric co-ops and others in the industry.

Defense attorneys are expected to continue questioning Eckert today.

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