Largest fire in NM history might have been averted

Wednesday - 7/13/2011, 5:02pm EDT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - The state's largest wildfire might have been averted if the caretaker of a private ranch had been around the day a dead tree was blown onto a power line, igniting the blaze that went on to threaten the nation's premier nuclear facility and thousands of homes.

"If there had been someone to attend to it when the power line got hit, there would have been no fire," Albuquerque real estate agent Roger Cox, who owns a ranch that straddles the ignition zone, told the Santa Fe New Mexican. "It would have been a small burn, but there wouldn't be a big fire."

Cox co-owns a 200-acre ranch in the Jemez Mountains, which ends about 10 feet from where an aspen tree fell onto a power line June 26, starting the Las Conchas fire. Cox said the ranch's caretaker had gone to Los Alamos for an errand that day. He returned just in time to evacuate the ranch's 10 horses and 20 steers.

"We didn't have anybody there when the fire started. It's not like we started a campfire that started a wildfire. The tree broke the wire and started the fire," Cox said. "There is nobody at fault. It is just an act of God that caused it, and it's a horrible thing, but that's it."

Dan Ware, public relations coordinator for the State Forestry Division, said investigators determined the Las Conchas fire started when high winds blew an uprooted tree on onto a power line. Survey crews were sent to the site and more detailed reports will come out later, he said.

As to whether any liability or fault might be found, Ware said, "We have to wait for the report to come out. We haven't had any indication about liability yet. I think everybody feels bad. Everybody is saying, `What could have been done? What could we have done?'"

Although the blaze destroyed most of the tall evergreen trees on the ranch Cox has owned with a partner for 43 years, three homes there were untouched, including the one where his caretaker lives, Cox said.

The blaze moved quickly from the border of his ranch north, where for nearly a week it threatened the town of Los Alamos and one the nation's premier nuclear weapons facility, the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The fire is the largest in recorded state history, having burned 150,000 acres or 234 square miles.

Although the monsoon season began in the state this month, fire officials say little rain has fallen on the blaze that was still just 50 percent contained on Wednesday.

Downed power lines are a common cause of wildfires, forestry officials say.

In the last 12 months, 106 fires on state and private land were started by trees falling on power lines, according to the State Forestry Division.

In the last month, downed power lines sparked the Osha Fire in the Carson National Forest near Sipapu _ after a beaver felled a tree that struck lines _ and a fire in Silver City that prompted home evacuations.

"Trees get blown over all the time," Ware said.


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