Attorney: Negligence by utilities led to New Mexico wildfire
BERNALILLO, N.M. – Pointing to a photograph of towering ponderosa pine and fir trees being overcome by smoke and flames, an attorney for more than 300 plaintiffs told jurors Thursday during opening statements that the negligence of two electric utilities was to blame for one of the largest fires in New Mexico’s recorded history.
It will be up to the jury to determine whether the utilities should be held liable for the Las Conchas fire.
The blaze was sparked June 26, 2011, when strong winds toppled a rotting aspen tree and it fell onto a power line running through the Jemez Mountains. The resulting fire scorched more than 240 square miles of tinder-dry forest, destroyed dozens of homes and threatened one of the nation’s premier government laboratories.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Tom Tosdal said the fire could have been prevented had Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative Inc. and Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association Inc. done inspections and managed potentially hazardous vegetation along the power line’s right of way.
“Both Tri-State and JMEC had the power and the opportunity to protect the public and prevent this fire by adopting well-known procedures in the electric industry,” Tosdal said.
Defense attorney Al Green used numerous photographs of the aspen tree in his opening statements, 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.
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.
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