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State calls for investigation into cause of Texas Panhandle wildfires

By Jayme Lozano Carver and Emily Foxhall, The Texas Tribune

State calls for investigation into cause of Texas Panhandle wildfires” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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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 550 miles — is under investigation. He had not received an official report as of Friday.

The fire, which is the largest in Texas history and has burned more than 1 million acres of land, started Monday along with a string of others that have left the region in devastation. Officials are unable to start investigating how the fire started, leaving many questions unanswered days after the flames engulfed the Panhandle.

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

Juan Rodriguez, Texas A&M Forest Service Incident Commander for the Smokehouse Creek fire, said his agency’s officers are investigating the cause of this week’s fires. The service will also have a report of its findings.

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

Attorneys have asked a utility company to preserve a fallen utility pole near where the Smokehouse Creek Fire may have started, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

A Minneapolis-based electric utility called Xcel Energy — which generates, sells and delivers power in the Texas Panhandle — said it received a letter from the attorneys on Wednesday. The filing does not name the law firm but said it represented “various property insurance interests.”

The company released a statement saying that it would “cooperate with officials while conducting our own investigations to determine the causes of the fires.”

Bloomberg reported earlier on the filing. Reuters reported that a homeowner whose house was destroyed filed a lawsuit Friday in Hemphill County against Xcel, claiming the power company’s splintered utility pole started the wildfire. The Texas Tribune could not immediately retrieve the court filing.

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.

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.

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 but blamed local firefighters for leaving the scene only to have another, second wildfire break out, killing 97 people.

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