Power lines ignited the largest wildfire in Texas history and one nearby, officials say

Mar 7, 2024, 7:14 AM

Power lines ignited massive wildfires across the Texas Panhandle that killed at least two people, destroyed homes and livestock, and left a charred landscape, officials said Thursday, including the largest blaze in state history.

The Texas A&M Forest Service said its investigators concluded that power lines ignited both the historic Smokehouse Creek fire, which has burned nearly 1,700 square miles (4,400 square kilometers) and spilled into neighboring Oklahoma, and the nearby Windy Deuce fire, which has burned about 225 square miles (582 square kilometers). The statement did not elaborate on what led to the power lines igniting the blazes.

Utility provider Xcel Energy said its equipment appeared to have sparked the Smokehouse Creek fire. The Minnesota-based company said in the news release that it did not believe its equipment caused the ignition of the Windy Deuce fire, nor was it aware of any allegations that it had. A company spokesman said in an email that there are power lines owned and operated by various companies in that area.

The wildfires that ignited last week in the windswept rural area prompted evacuations in a handful of small communities, destroyed as many as 500 structures and killed thousands of cattle. When the blazes began on Feb. 26, winds in the area were reaching upwards of 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour). Those strong winds, along with dry grass and temperatures reaching into the 70s and 80s fed the flames.

Containment levels have been increasing. The Smokehouse Creek fire was 74% contained Thursday, while the Windy Deuce fire was 89%. But the Forest Service warned that high winds were expected to be moving across the dry landscape, increasing fire danger.

Downed power lines and other utility equipment have led to other major wildfires, including the deadly blaze in Maui last year and a massive California wildfire in 2019.

A lawsuit filed last week in Hemphill County alleged that a downed power line near the town of Stinnett on Feb. 26 sparked the Smokehouse Creek fire. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a Stinnett homeowner against Xcel Energy, alleged the blaze started “when a wooden pole defendants failed to properly inspect, maintain and replace, splintered and snapped off at its base.”

In its Thursday news release, Xcel Energy disputed claims of negligence in maintaining and operating infrastructure.

In a statement that followed Xcel Energy’s news release, Mikal Watts, the attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the homeowner, said that an inspection Wednesday of the downed utility pole found “a heavily degraded wooden pole that should have been removed from service long ago.” He said the company that conducts pole inspections for Xcel Energy previously found the pole’s condition to be so degraded that it put a red tag on it to signify that it wasn’t safe to be climbed and needed to be replaced immediately.

Xcel did not immediately respond to those comments from Watts.

Two women were confirmed killed by the wildfires last week, one who was overtaken by flames south of Canadian after getting out of her truck and another whose remains were found in her burned home in Stinnett. On Tuesday, the fire chief in one of the hardest hit towns died while responding to a house fire. An official said that while the blaze wasn’t caused by a wildfire, Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith had been tirelessly fighting wildfires for over a week. An autopsy will determine Smith’s cause of death.

The small town of Fritch, which lost hundreds of homes in a 2014 wildfire, saw dozens more destroyed last week. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this week ordered that flags in Fritch be lowered to half-staff to honor Smith.

The Associated Press has requested the full reports from the Forest Service on the causes of the Smokehouse Creek and Windy Deuce fires.

Dale Smith, who operates a large ranch east of Stinnett, worked last week to tally up the number of cattle he lost in the wildfires. He said then that he believed a faulty power line was likely to blame, and that he had been concerned about their maintenance.

“These fires are becoming a regular occurrence,” he said. “Lives are being lost. Livestock are being lost. Livelihoods are being lost. It’s a sad story that repeats itself again and again.”


Associated Press journalist Sean Murphy contributed to this report from Oklahoma City.

National News

Juanita Beach Kirkland...

Kathy McCormack and Nick Perry, The Associated Press

‘Tis the season for swimming and bacteria alerts in lakes, rivers

With summer about to start, many people flocking to their favorite swimming holes may also want to read up on bacteria warnings.

6 hours ago

Associated Press

Couple rescued from desert near California’s Joshua Tree National Park after running out of water

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — A couple hiking in the desert south of Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California was rescued after running out of water, authorities said. On Sunday, the man called 911 and reported that his girlfriend was dehydrated and weak, according to a statement from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office posted Monday […]

6 hours ago

Associated Press

Crews rescue 28 people trapped upside down high on Oregon amusement park ride

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Emergency crews in Oregon rescued 28 people Friday after they were stuck for about half an hour dangling upside down high on a ride at a century-old amusement park. Portland Fire and Rescue said on the social platform X that firefighters worked with engineers at Oaks Park to manually lower the […]

7 hours ago

Associated Press

Independent report criticizes Cuomo’s ‘top-down’ management of New York’s COVID-19 response

NEW YORK (AP) — An investigation into New York’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic found former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “top down” approach of dictating public health policy through his office, rather than coordinating with state and local agencies, sewed confusion during the crisis. In the state’s nursing homes, where some 15,000 people died, the administration’s […]

7 hours ago

Associated Press

Judge dismisses lawsuit challenging federal rules to accommodate abortions for workers

CHICAGO (AP) — A lawsuit filed by 17 states challenging federal rules entitling workers to time off and other accommodations for abortions lacks standing, a federal judge in Arkansas ruled on Friday. Republican attorneys general from each state, led by Arkansas and Tennessee, sued the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in April, days after the agency […]

8 hours ago

Associated Press

Guest lineups for the Sunday news shows

WASHINGTON (AP) — ABC’s “This Week” — Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen; Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. ___ NBC’s “Meet the Press” — Reps. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., and Ro Khanna, D-Calif. ___ CBS’ “Face the Nation” — Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio; Microsoft founder Bill Gates; Neel Kashkari, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. ___ CNN’s […]

8 hours ago

Power lines ignited the largest wildfire in Texas history and one nearby, officials say