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State investigation: extensive failures in largest wildfire in Texas history

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(The Center Square) – The wildfires that destroyed more than 1.2 million acres in the panhandle earlier this year are likely to be the costliest in state history.

A state investigation identified what appears to be extensive failures in response efforts, including aerial response, that may have prevented the fires from expanding if implemented.

A report published by the House General Investigating Committee estimates $1 billion in economic losses are expected in addition to initial estimated agricultural losses of $123 million and cattle losses of $27 million.

In late February, the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Hutchinson County in the northern part of the panhandle burned more than one million acres, the largest in state history, The Center Square reported. This was in addition to several other wildfires causing Gov. Greg Abbott to issue disaster declarations for 60 counties.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, created a five-member committee to investigate the cause of the wildfires. A series of hearings were held earlier this year, led by state Rep. Ken King, a Republican from the panhandle.

Its first conclusion was “the primary and most destructive 2024 Panhandle wildfires were caused by power lines.

“Both the Smokehouse Creek and Reamer Creek fires were caused by downed power poles owned by Xcel Energy. The Windy Deuce Fire was caused by the lines on a power pole having been worn by the limbs of an adjacent tree and an oil and gas location. The Grapevine Creek Fire was initially reported to been caused our power pole owned by Xcel Energy, which subsequently denied ownership of the pole and reportedly requested a correction of the investigation report.”

Xcel Energy, which has long operated in west Texas, said it cooperated with investigations and conducted its own review. It acknowledged “that its facilities appear to have been involved in an ignition of the Smokehouse Creek fire” but disputes claims that it acted negligently in maintaining and operating its infrastructure.” It also encouraged anyone whose property or livestock were lost to submit a claim through its claims process.

The committee also found that an electric pole that needed to be replaced by Xcel’s vendor, Osmose Utility Service, wasn’t before high winds caused it to fall. “It is worth noting that while the legislature has recently passed legislation incentivizing more resiliency planning, Texas does little to regulate the inspection, maintenance, and replacement schedules of utility poles in the state,” the report states.

Osmose, which claims to be an industry leader in utility pole inspection services, refused to appear before the committee at any of the three hearings it held, the report states.

Another key conclusion of the report was a “delayed aviation response.” Because Texas doesn’t own fixed-wing firefighting aircraft, the state relies on U.S. Forest Service personnel and equipment and coordination with contracted aerial firefighters. One air response contractor said the Texas Department of Emergency Management did not call him until four days after ground forces were fighting the fires. Others said, “efficiently dispatching aircraft becomes critical” as soon as a fire starts, and aerial assets must be positioned “well before ignition” but weren’t.

One member of the committee said, “we had a window” the morning the Smokehouse Creek Fire began and the fire “could have been held if aircraft had been properly staged and dispatched.”

TDEM’s director blamed the federal government, claiming “the federal government did not take the threat posed to Texas seriously,” the report states.

The committee also found that Texas A&M Forest Service, the lead agency responding to wildfires, “appears to have not fully perceived the imminent fire risk.” Witness testimony also appears to have been contradictory; a TAMFS director described conditions prior to the wildfires as “a new phenomenon,” whereas panhandle residents said they weren’t.

The committee also identified numerous other problems: “grossly underfunded” grants for volunteer fire departments; lack of job protection for volunteer firefighters, including for those who were fired from their jobs while volunteering to fight the wildfires; inadequate reimbursement to volunteer firefighters for training-related expenses, among others.

“Ineffective communication in wildfire prevention and response was an overarching theme during the hearings,” the committee found, with witnesses pointing to “antiquated communications devices” hampering firefighter communication with other responders and local and state officials. “Volunteer firefighters could not reliably communicate with TIFMAS support firefighters or state emergency services personnel. Pilots of private aircraft could not communicate effectively with contracted aircraft, preventing effective coordination of their efforts.”

The committee also heard discrepancies between landowner and regulatory agency testimony. One landowner testified that 85% of multiple fires occurring on his ranch were caused by damaged electrical infrastructure at oil and gas locations. A director with the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the industry, said it had no record of such wildfires, according to the report.

Their testimony “reveals massive breakdown in communication between RRC and TAMFS, two state agencies whose coordination is indispensable to preventing and fighting future wildfires,” the committee said, adding that regulatory gaps “must be closed.”

The committee made 13 pages of recommendations for the legislature to address.