The state is calling for an investigation into the cause of the wildfires in the Texas Panhandle

By | March 3, 2024

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

“We continue to work with our local partners to determine its origins,” Abbott said at a press conference this week.

The fire, the largest in Texas history, started Monday along with a series of other blazes that have left the region in devastation. State and local officials have been unable to investigate how the fire started, leaving many questions unanswered nearly a week after the blaze began.

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

“Part of their process is investigating all the details and conducting site protection,” he said. “Once they reach a decision, we will begin releasing that information.”

But as firefighters work on reports on the causes of the Panhandle’s wildfires, landowner attorneys are focusing on a downed Xcel Energy power line outside Stinnett.

In a filing Wednesday 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 says it represents “various property insurance interests.”

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

On Friday, Reuters reported that Hemphill County homeowner Melanie McQuiddy had filed a lawsuit against Xcel Energy, claiming one of the company’s splintered utility poles there caused a fire when it fell.

And on Saturday, multimillionaire 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 damage to his ranch and his brothers’ land.

Abraham owns the 3,500-acre Mendota Ranch near Canadian. About 95 percent of the fences and pastures on Abraham’s land — which stretches five miles from the Canadian River — were lost in the fire, along with wildlife and thousands of trees.

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

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

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

Xcel said in a statement late Saturday that the cause of the fire was still undetermined and under investigation. The company said it has restored power to “customers who are able to receive power.”

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

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

Isern’s company sent Xcel Energy a hold letter that the company accepted on Friday. Several other companies also sent Xcel retention letters, Isern said.

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

Downed power lines have caused other major fire outbreaks, including the Dixie Fire and Kincade Fire that were started in California by power lines in the Pacific Ocean. Last year, the Hawaiian Electric Co. that downed power lines caused the first fire in Maui’s town of Lahaina, but blamed local firefighters for leaving the scene, only to trigger a second wildfire, killing 97 people.

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

“We’ll have to wait until the situation is clear, but from the reports we’re getting it looks like the fire started near this utility pole that collapsed,” Singleton said.

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