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Decayed, Broken Utility Pole Caused Largest Wildfire in Texas History: Report

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LUBBOCK — A decayed utility pole that broke, causing power wires to fall on dry grass in the Texas Panhandle, sparked the state’s largest wildfire in history, a Texas House committee confirmed Wednesday.

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And other poorly maintained power equipment sparked four additional fires across the region earlier this year, the committee said.

The committee also found that a lack of readily available air support, ineffective communication from faulty equipment and coordination among agencies inhibited on-the-ground efforts to contain the Smokehouse Creek fire and others that ravaged the Panhandle earlier this year.

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In response, the committee made up of three House members and two landowners recommended the Legislature have more effective monitoring and rule enforcement to check “irresponsible” oil and gas operators and improve accountability with utility providers when it comes to inspecting and replacing power poles.

The 43-page report largely confirmed what was previously established in the days and weeks following the fire. It appeared to rely heavily on testimony from three days of public hearings the committee held in Pampa, a Panhandle town near where the fires raged.

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The deadly wildfires disrupted life in the Texas Panhandle after they started in late February. Two people died and more than 1 million acres burned across several counties — Hutchinson, Hemphill, Roberts, Carson, Gray and Wheeler.

[After Texas’ largest wildfire is contained, a rancher moves on with a single calf]

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The fires caused extensive damage in its wake. The Panhandle region is largely rural, where cattle are known to outnumber residents. More than 85% of the state’s cattle population is located in the Panhandle. Many residents lost everything — 138 homes burned, according to the report, and more than 15,000 head of cattle, including pregnant cows, perished.

Hundreds of water wells were also destroyed as the fires raged through the Panhandle. According to the report, this has eliminated sources of water for people and livestock in the region, creating another hurdle to overcome.

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Xcel Energy, a Minnesota-based company that has provided electricity in that portion of the state, previously acknowledged its role in the Smokehouse Creek fire. Following the release of the committee’s report, it said they are taking action to mitigate wildfire risk, including updating systems to be more resilient in extreme weather and adjusting wildfire settings on their equipment.

“We care deeply about the Panhandle communities harmed by wildfires,” the company said. “Our people live and work in these same communities.”

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The company said it they look forward to working with the Public Utility Commission, the state legislature, members of the public and other agencies in response to the wildfires. Xcel has contracted Osmose Utility Services, a Georgia-based company, to manage its lines in Texas. Both companies have been sued in the aftermath of the fire.

In a statement, Osmose CEO Mike Adams said they have met with King since the hearings.

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“We have provided the committee with information regarding our view of best practices for utility pole maintenance and remain available to the committee and our customers in Texas to assist in this area going forward,” Adams said.

According to the report, the pole was inspected in January by Osmose and given a “priority one replacement” designation. On Feb. 9 —weeks before the fires sparked — Osmose notified Xcel that the pole needed to be replaced.

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Scott McBroom, a Fritch resident, fled his home when the Windy Deuce Fire breached his neighborhood. McBroom and his wife Deana lost everything. It was his childhood home.

McBroom, who learned about the report’s findings through a Texas Tribune reporter, said he was angry to hear it. He said companies should have done more to maintain the power lines and poles.

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“It’s just frustrating because through no fault of your own you end up losing everything,” he said. “It does make you angry because they have been neglecting stuff for a while.”

The family, including their dogs, are living with their daughter in Borger while they figure out what’s next.

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Efforts to extinguish the fires showed how flawed the state’s response to emergencies is in vulnerable areas of Texas. Volunteer fire departments were first on the scene, but had poor equipment, including broken radios, due to running on a tight budget. Wind speeds and a lack of availability caused a delay in air support being used as the fire spread.

The committee also called for more resources to contain wildfires before they grow out of control. Their suggestions range from Texas obtaining its own firefighting air fleet, additional funding for volunteer fire departments, and upgrading statewide communications systems for better communication across all responding agencies.

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Investigators began looking into poorly-maintained power lines as the cause of the fire in the days after it started. According to the report, wildfires ignited by power lines have been among the most destructive in the region since 2000 — causing more than 1,300 fires and burning more than 1.4 million acres.

Reference: Read the Texas House’s report on the Panhandle wildfires.(1.9 MB)

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This document is available at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/01/texas-panhandle-wildfires-report/

The committee was chaired by Rep. Ken King, a Canadian Republican. It also included Republican Reps. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock and Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi, and landowners Jason Abraham and James Henderson as public members of the committee.

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Carlos Nogueras Ramos contributed.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/01/texas-panhandle-wildfires-report/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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Topics
Catastrophe
Natural Disasters
Texas
Wildfire

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