A task force assembled by state Public Regulation Commissioner Valerie Espinoza to examine wildfire prevention convened for its first meeting June 21 in Santa Fe where hints of the blame game occasionally surfaced between electric utilities and state and federal officials.

    Representatives of utility companies and electric cooperatives, the U.S. and state forest services, tribal leaders, the Public Regulation Commission, state fire marshal John Standefer and others gathered for a rare Friday night meeting and discussed how they could work better together to prevent and respond to wildfires like those burning in New Mexico and Colorado.

    The roughly 30 Wildfire Prevention Task Force members discussed the possibility of widening utility easements on forests lands in light of recent fires blamed on trees falling onto power lines. They also discussed burying power lines, implementing better vegetation management plans and other initiatives.

    Gilbert Zepeda, deputy regional forester for resources and acting regional forester for the southwestern region of the U.S. Forest Service, said the June 2011 Las Conchas fire that resulted in the largest wildfire in state history at the time, and the current Thompson Ridge and Tres Lagunas fires, all started from electrical obstructions on private lands before spreading to federal lands.

    Zepeda said utilities are obligated as part of obtaining special-use permits for distribution and transmission lines on forest lands to patrol their easements and to remove any trees or vegetation in or adjacent to the easements.

    Zepeda said the issue is not about opposition to widening easements on federal lands, but rather of the necessity to do so.

    “From a federal standpoint, I don’t think the easement width is an issue,” Zepeda said after Friday night’s two-hour meeting. “We require them to take care of the easement, whether it’s in the easement or outside the easement.”

    Asked if the forest service had a policy position on widening easements on forest lands as some have suggested, Zepeda said: “Not really.”

    “Regardless of the width of easements, the utilities are required to maintain things and trim all branches and trees and remove old trees on or adjacent to the right of way,” Zepeda said. “If they perceive it as a threat, they can come to the local forest service.”

    Zepeda said forest service offices will grant emergency consultations with utilities concerned about vegetation encroachments onto their rights of way and allow utilities to access federal lands to remove the threats. He said current typical easement widths of 20 feet for distribution lines and 40 feet for transmission lines are being wrongfully blamed by some for the Thompson Ridge and Tres Lagunas fires, where initial reports indicate fallen trees on private properties brought down power lines and caused the fires.

    Zepeda said the real squabble is between the utilities and private property owners, whom some task force members said can sometimes be very reluctant to allow utilities onto their properties to cut down hazardous trees and branches.

    Keven Groenewold, general manager and executive vice president of the New Mexico Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said widening easements might help in some areas.

    “There may be places where that’s necessary, but I don’t think it’s needed in all places,” Groenewold said following the meeting. “I think there needs to be some flexibility with the width. There may be places where it needs to be wider and places where it needs to be more useful.”

    Groenewold said that as a general rule, utilities are restricted from going outside their rights of way for vegetation management. He said the forest service’s willingness to allow utilities onto public lands to cut vegetation varies from forest district to district.

    “I think you find some more helpful than others,” he said.

    Groenewold said federal regulations instruct utilities to trim vegetation based on conditions at the locations. For example, areas devoid of vegetation require little vegetation maintenance, he said.

    “I think we should do a better job working and communicating with the forest services, maybe some joint actions,” he said. “I don’t know if we were doing that five years ago. I think things are getting better.”

    Groenewold said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service writes most of the guidelines for vegetation management and mandates utilities conduct annual inspections and patrols of their rights of way.

    “That’s really why we’re all here,” Groenewold said during the meeting. “Wider rights of way would be nice. I don’t know if they’re imperative in all cases.”

    Zepeda said the forest service is willing to work with utilities to allow them to mitigate fire threats along easements.

    “It doesn’t have to be the entire lines,” Zepeda said. “You have to protect the area that’s most in danger.”

    Groenewold said utilities could do a better job identifying dangerous trees and branches, but he said utilities would never be able eliminate every potential hazard to power lines.

    “We don’t catch all of them,” he said. “So people say bury them. It’s cost-prohibitive to put these services underground. In rocky areas, you really couldn’t do that.”

    Standefer said wildland fires are part of nature and part of the rebirth of forested areas. He said suppressing wildfires creates problems later with leftover, dead, unburned forest growth.

    “Low-intensity fires are healthy fires,” he said.

    Zepeda said the likelihood of federal officials allowing the thinning of vegetation in wilderness areas to reduce potential combustible materials is “slim to none.”

    Standefer said fire departments across the state are charged with protecting counties and municipalities, not with suppressing wildfires. He said time and money spent on wildfires detracts from the abilities of fire departments to fight structure fires.

    “We’re not sure we know what the answer is,” Standefer said.

    Zepeda said the forest service has responded aggressively to the state’s wildfires with firefighting helicopters and a DC-10 tanker.

    “So, we’ve got all the resources we need right now,” he said.

    Robert Castillo, general manager of Continental Divide Electric Cooperative based in Gallup and Grants, said cooperatives have to work with multiple state and federal agencies. He said utilities get criticized for over-zealous tree trimming, while also getting blamed for starting wildfires.

    “So when the forest fire starts, guess where the buck stops?” Castillo said. “It’s ‘Hey guys, you started a fire.’”

    Castillo said the widths of rights of way are important, but not necessarily the answer to preventing forest fires. He added widening easements on tribal lands would be more expensive for utilities since utilities pay by the acre for easements on tribal lands.

    “People want the beauty of the forest. We try and keep our footprint as small as possible out there,” Castillo said. “Utility related fires create a small percentage of forest fires.”

    Tony Roybal, mayor of Pecos, said the forest service doesn’t want its trees cut or its wildlife threatened by prescribed fires. He said the forest service and private property owners need to better work with utilities on allowing vegetation management.

    “Until that happens, we’re going to continue having trees falling on these lines and we’re going to continue having fires,” Roybal said.

    Rose Marie Law, acting general manager of Jemez Mountains Electric Co-op, also attended the task force meeting.

    “I agree wholeheartedly that we all need to work together to get this done,” she said later. “I think it could be a little bit wider. I think working together we can help each other out where we’re not taking up too much of an easement,”

    Espinoza, vice chair of the PRC and chair of the task force, said the mission of the task force is not to fact-find and figure out who’s responsible for current wildfires, but to look at improving the vegetation management plans of utilities. Espinoza said she decided to initiate the task force with several wildfires currently burning, primarily in her district.

    “As a regulator, I want to do what I can on my end,” Espinoza said.

    State Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela is co-chair of the task force. He also encouraged cooperation.

    “We need to come together and find out what we can do to prevent these fires,” Varela said.

    The task force is tentatively scheduled to meet again at 4 p.m. July 10 at the PERA building in Santa Fe.

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