Power lines ignited the largest wildfire in Texas history and one nearby, officials say

The Associated Press - March 8, 2024 8:00 am

FILE - A telephone pole burns from the Smokehouse Creek Fire, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. The utility provider Xcel Energy said Thursday, March 7, 2024 that its facilities appear to have played a role in igniting a massive wildfire in the Texas Panhandle that grew to the largest blaze in state history. (AP Photo/David Erickson, file)

By JAMIE STENGLE Associated Press

(AP) — Power lines ignited massive wildfires across the Texas Panhandle that killed at least two people, destroyed homes and livestock, and left a charred landscape, officials said on Thursday, including the largest blaze in state history.

The Texas A&M Forest Service said its investigators concluded that power lines ignited both the historic Smokehouse Creek fire, which has burned nearly 1,700 square miles (4,400 square kilometers) and spilled into neighboring Oklahoma, and the nearby Windy Deuce fire, which has burned about 225 square miles (582 square kilometers). The statement did not elaborate on what led to the power lines igniting the blazes.

Utility provider Xcel Energy said its equipment appeared to have sparked the Smokehouse Creek fire. The Minnesota-based company said in the news release that it did not believe its equipment caused the ignition of the Windy Deuce fire, nor was it aware of any allegations that it had. A company spokesman said in an email that there are power lines owned and operated by various companies in that area.

The wildfires that ignited last week in the windswept rural area prompted evacuations in a handful of small communities, destroyed as many as 500 structures and killed thousands of cattle. When the blazes began on February 26th, winds in the area were reaching upwards of 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour). Those strong winds, along with dry grass and temperatures reaching into the 70s and 80s fed the flames.

Containment levels have been increasing. The Smokehouse Creek fire was 74% contained on Thursday, while the Windy Deuce fire was 89%. Yet the Forest Service warned that high winds were expected to be moving across the dry landscape, increasing fire danger.

Downed power lines and other utility equipment have led to other major wildfires, including the deadly blaze in Maui last year and a massive California wildfire in 2019.

A lawsuit filed last week in Hemphill County alleged that a downed power line near the town of Stinnett on February 26th sparked the Smokehouse Creek fire. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a Stinnett homeowner against Xcel Energy, alleged that the blaze started “when a wooden pole defendants failed to properly inspect, maintain and replace, splintered and snapped off at its base.”

In its Thursday news release, Xcel Energy disputed claims of negligence in maintaining and operating infrastructure.

In a statement that followed Xcel Energy’s news release, Mikal Watts, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the homeowner, said that an inspection on Wednesday of the downed utility pole found “a heavily degraded wooden pole that should have been removed from service long ago.” He said the company that conducts pole inspections for Xcel Energy previously found the pole’s condition to be so degraded that it put a red tag on it to signify that it wasn’t safe to be climbed and needed to be replaced immediately.

Xcel did not immediately respond to those comments from Watts.

Two women were confirmed killed by the wildfires last week, one who was overtaken by flames south of Canadian after getting out of her truck and another whose remains were found in her burned home in Stinnett. On Tuesday, the fire chief in one of the hardest hit towns died while responding to a house fire. An official said that while the blaze wasn’t caused by a wildfire, Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith had been tirelessly fighting wildfires for over a week. An autopsy will determine Smith’s cause of death.

The small town of Fritch, which lost hundreds of homes in a 2014 wildfire, saw dozens more destroyed last week. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this week ordered that flags in Fritch be lowered to half-staff to honor Smith.

The Associated Press has requested the full reports from the Forest Service on the causes of the Smokehouse Creek and Windy Deuce fires.

Dale Smith, who operates a large ranch east of Stinnett, worked last week to tally up the number of cattle he lost in the wildfires. He said then that he believed a faulty power line was likely to blame, and that he had been concerned about their maintenance.

“These fires are becoming a regular occurrence,” he said. “Lives are being lost. Livestock are being lost. Livelihoods are being lost. It’s a sad story that repeats itself again and again.”


Associated Press journalist Sean Murphy contributed to this report from Oklahoma City.


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