- Associated Press - Monday, September 28, 2015

BERNALILLO, N.M. (AP) - It will be up to jurors to decide whether two utility companies should be held liable for one of the largest wildfires in New Mexico’s recorded history.

Jury selection began Monday in Bernalillo before state District Judge Louis McDonald, and the process could take at least three days. The trial is expected to last six weeks.

The Las Conchas fire was sparked the afternoon of June 26, 2011, when an aspen tree fell onto power lines running through national forest land in the Jemez Mountains. Fueled by strong winds and tinder-dry vegetation, it burned the equivalent of an acre a second in the first 13 hours alone.

The fire raced across the southern edge of the mountain range, scorching a total of more than 240 square miles of forest over the next month. 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 Native American tribes.

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

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.

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

They have argued in court documents that there was no way to know the tree posed a hazard and the resulting blaze was an unforeseeable event.

The jury will consider whether the defendants should have removed the tree, which was on private property, or done something to prevent it from falling into the utility right of way and onto the power line.

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