Utility Says Its Equipment May Have Started Record Texas Fire

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A utility company acknowledged on Thursday that its equipment appeared to have started the largest wildfire in Texas’ recorded history, a blaze that began last week and went on to burn more than 1 million acres in the state’s Panhandle region.

Xcel Energy, an electric and gas company that operates in a mostly rural part of Texas, said in a statement that its “facilities appear to have been involved in an ignition” of the blaze, the Smokehouse Creek fire, which has led to two deaths and killed thousands of cattle and other livestock.

The Smokehouse Creek fire is by far the largest of several fires that have charred the Panhandle since last week, leveling homes in and around small towns and spelling potential economic ruin for farmers and ranchers whose land was scorched. Fire officials said on Thursday that the fire was 74 percent contained, but that strong winds could make firefighting difficult in the next few days.

Though the company acknowledged that its infrastructure may have started the fire, Xcel Energy said it did not agree with claims that the company was negligent in operating its equipment.

Some landowners had already accused the company of being responsible for the fire. They say a wooden utility pole near Stinnett, Texas, was blown over by strong winds and set fire to dry brush and grass in the area.

Melanie Lee McQuiddy, a homeowner in Hemphill County, where the Smokehouse Creek fire burned uncontrolled for days across grassland, sued Xcel last week, saying her home was burned in the blaze.

According to her lawsuit, the fire began when “a wooden pole defendants failed to properly inspect, maintain, and replace, splintered, and snapped off at its base” about a mile outside of Stinnett during high winds on Feb. 26.

The suit names Xcel along with a subsidiary and a company that was hired to provide maintenance on the power lines. It argues that the companies’ negligence, in failing to inspect and maintain the utility lines and poles, was the “proximate cause of the fire.”

Xcel Energy is based in Minneapolis and provides power to almost 4 million customers in eight Western and Midwestern states. Through its subsidiary Southwestern Public Service, the utility has operated in the Texas Panhandle for more than 100 years.

Salem Abraham, an investment manager in Canadian, Texas, said nearly all of his 3,500 acres of hay land was burned during the Smokehouse Creek fire, and that he and other landowners were preparing a lawsuit of their own against Xcel. Their lawyers sent a letter to the company asking it to preserve the utility pole as potential evidence in the case.

Mr. Abraham, 57, traces his roots in the area back to his great-grandfathers. He said he had noticed an increase in the number of fires in over the last few decades as utility poles that were installed in the middle of the last century have aged.

“It’s the destructive combination of high wind and 80-year-old electric components that have passed their useful life,” he said. “It’s a problem that the nation needs to understand and needs to fix.”

He sued Xcel once before, he said, in the 1990s, and since then, the problem had only gotten worse. “I’m quick to file lawsuits, and I’m sick and tired of electric companies burning up our neighborhoods,” he said.

Several large fires in recent years have been caused by electric utilities’ equipment. Xcel has been accused of causing a fire in Colorado in 2021, though it denies responsibility.

Ivan Penn contributed reporting.

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