Downed power lines ignited the largest wildfire in Texas history, officials say – NBC DFW

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Power lines ignited massive wildfires across the Texas Panhandle that destroyed homes and killed thousands of livestock, officials said Thursday, including the largest blaze in state history that the utility provider Xcel Energy said its equipment appeared to have sparked.

The Texas A&M Forest Service said its investigators have concluded that the Smokehouse Creek fire was ignited by power lines, as was the nearby Windy Deuce fire.

The utility provider Xcel Energy said Thursday (full statement below) that its equipment appeared to have played a role in igniting the Smokehouse Creek fire, though it did not believe its equipment was responsible for the Windy Deuce fire.

The Smokehouse Creek fire burned nearly 1,700 square miles and destroyed hundreds of structures. The Minnesota-based company said in a statement that it disputes claims that “it acted negligently” in maintaining and operating infrastructure.

“Based on currently available information, Xcel Energy acknowledges that its equipment appear to have been involved in an ignition of the Smokehouse Creek fire,” the company stated.

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.

The Smokehouse Creek fire was among a cluster of fires that ignited in the rural Panhandle last week and prompted evacuation orders in a handful of small communities. That wildfire, which also spilled into neighboring Oklahoma, was about 44% contained as of Wednesday.

Officials said that as many as 500 structures may have been destroyed in the fires.

A lawsuit filed Friday in Hemphill County had alleged that a downed power line near the town of Stinnett on Feb. 26 sparked the blaze. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Stinnett homeowner Melanie McQuiddy against Xcel Energy Services Inc. and two other utilities, alleged the blaze started “when a wooden pole defendants failed to properly inspect, maintain and replace, splintered and snapped off at its base.”

Dale Smith, who operates a large cattle Ranch east of Stinnett said he lost an estimated 30 to 50 head of cattle out of the 3,000 that graze on his property.

“We’re still trying to tally up the cattle losses,” Smith said. “It burned probably 70-80% of the ranch.”

Smith said much of the grazing land will grow back quickly with the proper rain and moisture, but he said they also lost several 100-year-old Cottonwood trees that dotted the ranch. Firefighters were able to save three camps on the ranch that included barns and other structures.

Smith said he believes a faulty power line sparked the blaze which quickly spread because of high winds.

“These fires are becoming a regular occurrence. Lives are being lost. Livestock are being lost. Livelihoods are being lost. It’s a sad story that repeats itself again and again, because public utility companies and oil companies responsible for these power lines aren’t keeping them maintained.”

STATEMENT FROM XCEL ENERGY ON TEXAS WILDFIRES

On Thursday, Xcel Energy issued the following unedited statement on the Texas Panhandle wildfires.

Xcel Energy (XEL) issued the following statement regarding the wildfires in the Texas Panhandle: Our thoughts continue to be with the families and communities impacted by the wildfires in the Texas Panhandle. We are also grateful for the courageous first responders that have worked to fight the fires and help save lives and property.

As longstanding members of the west Texas community, we will continue to support our neighbors in this recovery, and we thank our frontline workers who have worked long hours over the past several days to restore electrical service to those who can receive power in the impacted areas.

Xcel Energy has been cooperating with the investigations into the wildfires and has been conducting its own review. Based on currently available information, Xcel Energy acknowledges that its facilities appear to have been involved in an ignition of the Smokehouse Creek fire.

Xcel Energy disputes claims that it acted negligently in maintaining and operating its infrastructure; however, we encourage people who had property destroyed by or livestock lost in the Smokehouse Creek fire to submit a claim to Xcel Energy through our claims process. We will review and respond to any such claims in an expeditious manner, with a priority on claims from any person that lost their home in the Smokehouse Creek fire. A claim form and instructions for submission can be found by visiting www.xcelenergy.com and scrolling to the bottom righthand side of that page, to the “Claims Process” link under Customer Support Claims Services | Customer Support | Xcel Energy.

Xcel Energy notes that the Windy Deuce fire reportedly impacted many structures in and around Fritch, Texas. Xcel does not believe that its facilities caused the ignition of the Windy Deuce fire, and we are not aware of any allegation that Xcel Energy’s facilities caused this fire.

Based on preliminary information disclosed by authorities on March 5, Xcel Energy understands that 47 occupied homes in Hemphill County and up to 17 occupied homes in Roberts County were destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek fire. With respect to Hutchinson County, which was impacted by both the Smokehouse Creek fire and the Windy Deuce fire, Xcel Energy’s preliminary understanding based on the areas impacted is that the number of occupied homes lost due to the Smokehouse Creek fire appear to be fewer than in Hemphill County. These numbers are subject to change as more information becomes available.

Xcel Energy will continue to work with regulators and policymakers to evaluate the evolving nature of the wildfire risk and advance effective wildfire mitigation strategies to keep the public safe and our systems resilient.

Statement from Bob Frenzel, Chairman, President and CEO of Xcel Energy: “Xcel Energy, through our Southwestern Public Service Company (SPS) subsidiary, has operated in the Texas Panhandle for more than 100 years. The people in this region are our friends, neighbors and relatives. We are deeply saddened by the losses incurred in this community, and we are committed to supporting its renewal and recovery.”

TEXAS WILDFIRE MAPS

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