PVREA, Otero County recovering from summer wildfires

Fueled by unusually high June winds, Little Bear fire spread quickly on Forest Service land in Otero County’s northern district.

With a miraculously low death toll of one, nearly 500 homes destroyed and untold millions of dollars in property damages, two of Tri-State’s member systems are now recovering from devastating June wildfires that ravaged mountain homes and businesses in northern Colorado and southeastern New Mexico.

There have been many wildfires in the region this summer, including Colorado’s most destructive fire disaster, the Waldo Canyon blaze, which killed two people and incinerated 346 homes in late June and early July near Colorado Springs.

But, when it comes to disasters that have had the greatest impact on Tri-State’s membership, it is certain that the co-op employees and consumers of Poudre Valley REA (Fort Collins, Colo.) and Otero County Electric (Cloudcroft, N.M.) will never forget the summer of 2012, when the High Park and Little Bear fires ravaged hundreds of homes, threatened lives and and left a lasting black scar across thousands of acres timber.

The eNewsbreaker staff recently toured the fire-stricken areas and interviewed Otero County and Poudre Valley REA employees to obtain a first-hand look at the impacts and recovery efforts for an upcoming article in Tri-State’s Network magazine.

At Poudre Valley, the High Park fire, triggered by lightning on June 9, claimed one life and 257 homes by the time it was declared fully contained on June 30. Steve Murrow, Poudre Valley’s operations superintendent, saw the smoke as he returned from a camping trip and immediately started rallying members of his line crew to begin deenergizing distribution lines in the affected areas.

As soon as it was safe to do so, Murrow had his crews on site with equipment and materials ready to rebuild lines destroyed by the fire. “Our goal was to get in there and start reconstruction before our members returned to their homes,” he said. Murrow said his crews put in 14 to 18-hour days during the reconstruction.

“That was not an easy task, considering that the rugged and steep terrain in some of the burn areas required that poles had to be set by hand,” said Brad Gaskill, Poudre Valley’s general manager.

The High Park fire, west of Fort Collins, Colo., claimed one life and destroyed 257 homes served by Poudre Valley REA.

Poudre Valley’s total reconstruction bill is estimated at approximately $2.5 million for 400 new poles, 10 miles of line and scores of new transformers burned by the fire.

About 600 miles south of the High Park fire site in a mountainous area north of Ruidoso, N.M., Tri-State member Otero County Electric recently completed rebuilding its lines after what has been reported as the most destructive wildfire in New Mexico’s history.

Clint Gardner, Otero County’s manager of member services, had a much too close encounter with the Little Bear fire. As it incinerated trees on his property, he remembers calling his wife to tell her, “We are going to lose the house.” But, miraculously, the wind shifted again and the fire spared the Gardner’s home and took his neighbor’s house instead.

The lightning-caused Little Bear fire started on June 4. By the time that it was fully contained about three weeks later, it had chewed through nearly 70 square miles of timber and destroyed 242 homes and other structures across a huge swath of rugged landscape north of Ruidoso around the community of Alto, N.M.

Chopper draws water from Bonito Lake to fight the Little Bear Fire in New Mexico.

Gardner, who served as a volunteer fire fighter for 25 years in west Texas, said it was the hottest fire he had ever seen. “It was unreal the way it changed direction without warning and the high winds kept it moving fast, burning across a mile of land every hour,” he said.

According to Terry Buttram, operations manager for Otero County, the assessment of damage to the systems is ongoing, but preliminary estimates show that at least 140 power poles were lost in the blaze. “We are continuing to find poles that need to be replaced,” he said.

The New Mexico co-op came within minutes of losing its field office and warehouse facility as the blaze creeped to within yards of the back door of Otero’s Alto facilities before changing direction.  Gardner, who was on site defending the building, said, ”I was sure that the fire was going to get it.”

You can read more about the co-op fires in the upcoming fall edition of Network.

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