- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

BERNALILLO, N.M. (AP) - 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.

There also was no evidence, he said, that the co-op was violating its permit with the U.S. Forest Service, which required the right of way to be kept clear of trees and other vegetation.

Tosdal told jurors the defendants had plenty of notice that something needed to be done. In the 13 months leading up to the fire, he said there had been nearly two dozen separate occasions in which trees fell onto the co-op’s power lines and caused outages. There were also two cases in which fires started, he said.

The co-op also knew the forest was dry and winds were a concern, Tosdal said. “The conditions were ripe for a conflagration, a catastrophic wildfire,” he said.

The civil trial, expected to last six weeks, is being watched closely by rural electric co-ops and others in the industry given that the plaintiffs are attempting to link the co-op that managed the power line with the transmission company that supplies it with power.

Tri-State spokesman Lee Boughey and the transmission company’s lawyers dismissed claims that the two were joint ventures and should share responsibility. Boughey said New Mexico’s rural co-ops are independent, governed by their own boards and regulated by state and federal law.

The plaintiffs include Jemez and Cochiti pueblos, along with private property owners, businesses and insurance companies. Several separate lawsuits were filed in the wake of the fire, but the case being heard by Judge Louis McDonald consolidated the claims.

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