State calls for investigation into cause of Texas Panhandle wildfires

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, center, speaks at a press conference with Nim Kidd chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, left, and Hutchinson County Judge Cindy Irwin, right, Friday, March. 1, 2024, in Borger, Texas. (Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune, Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune)

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Texas officials do not yet know the full damage from the ongoing wildfires, but have already described a wide swath of devastating destruction to homes, land and livestock. Follow the current conditions, estimates of damage and efforts to recover here.

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As firefighters battle the raging Smokehouse Creek fire, Gov. Greg Abbott said the cause of the fire — which covers more than 1 million acres — is under investigation.

“We’re going to continue to work with our local partners to do calls in origin determination,” Abbott said during a press conference this week.

The fire, which is the largest in Texas history, started Monday along with a string of others that have left the region in devastation. State and local officials are unable to start investigating how the fire started, leaving many questions unanswered, nearly a week after the fire began.

Juan Rodriguez, the Texas A&M Forest Service’s incident commander for the Smokehouse Creek fire, said his agency’s officers are investigating and will eventually have a report of its findings.

“Part of their process is looking into all the details and doing site protection,” he said. “Once they come to a determination, we’ll start releasing that information.”

But as fire officials work on reports about the Panhandle wildfire causes, lawyers of landowners are zeroing in on a downed Xcel Energy power line located ​​outside Stinnett.

In a Wednesday filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy revealed it had received a letter from attorneys asking the company to preserve a fallen utility pole near where the Smokehouse Creek Fire may have started. The filing does not name the law firm but said it represented “various property insurance interests.”

Xcel Energy’s subsidiary, Southwestern Public Service Company, serves the area where the fire is burning, according to the SEC filing. The location is outside of the jurisdiction of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the power grid that provides electricity for most of the state. In that filing, Xcel Energy said that “investigations into origin, cause, and damage of the wildland fires burning in or near the service territory of SPS, including the Smokehouse Creek Fire, are underway.” The company also said it is working with emergency responders to provide assistance to those impacted by the fires.

Then on Friday, Reuters reported that homeowner Melanie McQuiddy filed a lawsuit in Hemphill County against Xcel Energy claiming that one of the company’s splintered power poles started a fire there when it fell.

And on Saturday, multimillionaire trader Salem Abraham told The Texas Tribune of his plans to file suit this month against Xcel and Osmose Utility Services over the Xcel Energy pole for damages to his ranch and his brothers’ land.

Abraham is the owner of the 3,500 acre Mendota Ranch near Canadian. Around 95 percent of the fences and pastures on Abraham’s land — which stretches along five miles of the Canadian River — were burned in the fire, along with wildlife and thousands of trees.

Once filed this month, it will be the fifth lawsuit related to wildfire damages Abraham has filed in the past 30 years — and the third one involving electrical lines, he said. He sued Xcel in 1996 after a wildfire destroyed land on his ranch.

“I’m sick and tired of it,” Abraham said. “This is not my first or second or third or fourth or fifth fire rodeo, and it’s not my first one with these utilities [companies].”

Abraham’s lawyer Kevin Isern, of the Amarillo law firm Lovell, Isern & Farabough, said the firm is finalizing a suit against against Xcel Energy, which generates, sells and delivers power in the Texas Panhandle and Osmose Utility Services, a Georgia-based company that Isern said inspects Xcel Energy equipment in Texas. Isern said Abraham’s suit will center on what they believe was Xcel Energy’s failure to comply with the National Electrical Code, which sets U.S. standards for safe installation of electrical wiring.

Late Saturday, Xcel said in a statement that the cause of the fire remains undetermined and under investigation. The company said has restored power to "customers who can receive power."

“Our thoughts are with the families and communities impacted by the devastating wildfires across the Texas Panhandle," the statement said. "As members of this community, we will continue to support our neighbors in this recovery."

Investigators sent by the law firm located the pole on Monday, Isern said. They believe it was pushed over by strong winds, and started the wildfire when it fell and its electrical wiring came into contact with dry grass.

Isern’s firm sent Xcel Energy a preservation letter that the company accepted on Friday. Multiple other firms also sent Xcel preservation letters, Isern said.

Abraham said his brothers – Eddie and Jason Abraham – own over 25,000 acres of Texas ranchland and will likely join his lawsuit. The fire burned their pastures and killed much of their livestock.

Downed power lines have caused other massive fire outbreaks, including the Dixie Fire and Kincade Fire that sparked in California from Pacific Gas And Electric power lines. Last year, the Hawaiian Electric Co. acknowledged downed power lines caused the initial fire in the Maui town of Lahaina. Power was cut to the area and that fire was declared “extinguished” by firefighters, who then left the area. The utility did not blame firefighters for leaving the scene, but only pointed out that firefighters had left the area when the second fire that killed 97 people, erupted 75 yards from the initial blaze in an area where power was turned off. An official cause of the deadly fire has not been determined.

Gerald Singleton, managing partner of Singleton Schreiber, a San Diego-based law firm that has handled similar cases before, said the most common cause of these fires is lightning strikes. Since that can be ruled out in the Panhandle fires, Singleton said the next cause to look at is proximity to power lines.

“We’re going to have to wait until the scene is clear, but from the reports we’re getting, it appears the fire started near this power pole going down,” Singleton said.

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