Report released on Las Conchas Fire

Report released on Las Conchas Fire

02 August 2011

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USA — New Mexico’s biggest fire in history is now officially out. But the finger pointing over who is responsible for the Las Conchas Fire has only just begun.

A new report released by the state forestry division on Tuesday says the fire started after a tree on private land fell onto some power lines that are on federal land.

Those power lines belong to the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative.

The general manager told News 13 he is fairly certain the U.S. Forest Service will claim the co-op is liable.

“The forest service is becoming very aggressive to try to hold utilities financially responsible for any fire,” said Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative General Manager Wayne Sowell.

Sowell said the co-op did everything it was supposed to, but state forestry investigators found branches growing into power lines.

Sowell denied that claim.

“Last six months they went down that line and trimmed all the trees within our prescribed easement as authorized by the U.S. Forest Service,” Sowell said.

The massive 156,593 acre Las Conchas fire was sparked in the Jemez Mountains on June 26.

“An aspen tree was blown down by the wind and came into contact with the power lines,” said Shawn Beck, a law enforcement officer for the State Forestry Division.

Beck said that set off the blaze and an hour after it started, the fire had already reached the tree tops, fueled by dry grass and trees and heavy winds.

More than 40,000 acres burned in the first 12 hours.

It took more than a month and tens of millions of dollars to douse all the flames.

Whether or not anyone will be held liable and asked to pay firefighting costs is up to the U.S. Forest Service because the fire started on its land.

Sowell said the forest service has tried to hold them liable in the past after two smaller wildfires started near its power lines.

Those cases are still in litigation.

The U.S. Forest Service has not received the state’s report yet.

A spokesperson said they need to review the report before making any decisions on liability.

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