Attorney: Utilities’ negligence led to New Mexico wildfire

BERNALILLO, N.M. (AP) – Two electric utility companies did nothing to prevent one of the largest fires in New Mexico recorded history and later showed no remorse, an attorney for more than 300 plaintiffs told jurors Tuesday.

In closing arguments, plaintiffs’ attorney Tom Tosdal said the Las Conchas Fire could have been averted had Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative Inc. responded to potential dangers by doing inspections and managing potentially hazardous vegetation along its power lines.

The Las Conchas Fire started in 2011 when an aspen tree fell onto a power line that stretched through national forest land in the Jemez Mountains.

Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative operated and maintained the line. Tri-State Generation and Transmission Inc. provides the cooperative with electricity and is also named as a defendant.

“The only thing Jemez Mountains Electric and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association have done is avoid responsibility,” Tosdal said.

Jemez Mountains Electric attorney Al Green said many of the co-op’s top executives are from the area and cared very much about the effects of the fire.

Green also dismissed claims that the co-op ignored industry standards. He said the utility had a tree-trimming program at the time of the fire that was much like those adopted by rural co-ops across the country.

During the trial, Green presented numerous photographs of the aspen tree, saying it would have been difficult for utility linemen and contract workers to spot it as a hazard given that it still had green leaves and was on private land outside of the right of way.

Besides, it wasn’t unusual for a downed tree to start a fire, Green said.

“Trees fall on power lines all over the country,” Green told jurors.

Jay Sturhahn, an attorney for Tri-State, also defending the utility’s actions. Tri-State continued to maintain the tree that started fire could not reasonably have been identified as posing a threat to Jemez Mountains Electric’s power line.

Jurors will weigh whether the defendants should be held liable for not removing the tree, which was on private land, or taking action to prevent it from falling onto the power line.

Cochiti and Jemez pueblos are among the more than 300 plaintiffs in the case, which consolidates several lawsuits filed in the wake of the fire. The plaintiffs include property owners, businesses and insurance companies.

The fire raced across the southern edge of the mountain range, charring more than 240 square miles. It destroyed dozens of homes, threatened one of the nation’s premier government laboratories and blackened nearly two-thirds of Bandelier National Monument along with areas held sacred by the tribes.

The threat of post-fire flooding continues to loom for the tribes and the monument.

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