Cut hundreds of trees or lose them to fire

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By Sherry Robinson


If a tree falls in the forest…

That little statement used to introduce a philosophical discussion. Today we might ask, “If a tree falls in the forest and lands on a power line, whose responsibility is the resulting fire?”

A host of insurance companies are suing the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative claiming the utility is responsible for the 2011 Las Conchas fire. 

The utility argues that the tree fell on its line from private property outside its right of way. 

We can probably expect more such lawsuits related to the Tres Lagunas and Thompson Ridge fires, both started by downed power lines.

It all comes down to prevention. We may be the home of Smokey Bear, but we’re still not serious enough about prevention. Prevention in current discussions means wider right-of-ways and tree thinning.

The co-operative wants wider easements through the national forest, reports the Rio Grande Sun, from 20-feet to 40 or 50 for distribution lines and more for transmission lines. 

Two years ago, the co-op asked for 150-foot easements, but the Forest Service and environmentalists objected. 

Valerie Espinoza, vice chair of the state Public Regulation Commission, supports easements “as wide as they need to be,” to prevent fires and has formed the Wildfire Prevention Task Force of utility companies, electric cooperatives, state regulators, pueblo leaders and citizens. 

Two issues surfaced quickly.

Utilities are required to patrol their easements and remove old trees in or next to their rights of way. They’re mindful of this responsibility. They can also take concerns to the U.S. Forest Service to get access to federal lands and deal with hazards, but some districts are more cooperative than others. 

Another problem is private landowners, who don’t want the utilities cutting trees on their property.

So we can either accept more tree cutting in the right-of-ways and on private property, or we can accept the loss of millions of trees in fires. 

A related issue is thinning. Thinning works. Where fire has struck areas preventively thinned, the destruction is greatly reduced, but the federal government is doing less thinning because of budget cuts.

Here’s what our congressional delegation has done lately: 

Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich wrote to utilities and federal agencies and asked them to cooperate and to exercise greater caution.  

Rep. Steve Pearce is demanding that forest management return to an old policy of containing every fire by 10 a.m. the following day. 

Rep. Ben Ray Luján amended a bill to add $10 million for prevention efforts by local communities and utilities.

The Udall-Heinrich letter states the obvious. We can safely assume the utilities are well aware of heightened fire danger and have ramped up their efforts. Maybe the senators should encourage the Forest Service to pass the word to all its offices that cooperation with utilities is a priority.

Containing every fire by 10 a.m. the next day? We’re talking about extreme blazes in rugged terrain, with wind. Does Pearce understand that quick containment isn’t even possible? The feds are already throwing everything they have at these fires. We should be talking about giving them more and bigger tools to fight fires.

Luján alone has a practical proposal, and involving communities and utilities is a good idea. 

In Santa Fe this year, we had the usual arguments about fireworks. The governor pushed again for controls on fireworks. 

A freshman legislator, who is an Albuquerque fire department captain, introduced a bill to give local governments a stronger hand in banning fireworks. 

That bill died. The excuses I heard: Fireworks aren’t to blame for New Mexico’s fires, people can drive across the border or out to the reservation to buy fireworks, we’ve gotta support small (fireworks) business.

Have a smokeless Fourth of July.