Mar 7, 2024 - Energy & Environment

Energy provider admits role in start of Texas' largest wildfire

A view of the Smokehouse Creek Fire from a fire truck in Texas Panhandle in February 2024.

A view of the Smokehouse Creek Fire from a fire truck in Texas Panhandle in February 2024. Photo: Greenville Firefighter Association/ Handout /Anadolu via Getty Images

Utility provider Xcel Energy said on Thursday its facilities "appear to have been involved" in last week's ignition of the Smokehouse Creek Fire, the largest wildfire in Texas history.

Why it matters: Other energy providers have been on the hook for billions after they were found liable for wildfires around the country.

  • Most notably, PG&E agreed to an $11 billion civil settlement for its role in starting wildfires across California in 2018, including the Camp Fire that killed 85 people and destroyed the town of Paradise.
  • A recent lawsuit alleges Xcel caused the fire by negligently failing to properly maintain its power line poles. It claimed that a splintered pole owned by one of the company's subsidiaries fell and ignited the blaze on Feb. 26, Reuters reports.

Zoom out: The wildfire, which remains only 44% contained, has so far killed two people and has scorched over 1,059,500 acres across the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma.

  • It and other fires in the region triggered issued a disaster declaration for 60 Texas counties and suspended operations at the U.S.' primary nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facilities.
  • Texas' energy grid, which has been vulnerable to winter and summer weather extremes, has faced intense scrutiny since mass power outages during a historic multi-day winter storm in February 2021 contributed to hundreds of deaths.

What they're saying: Xcel said in a press release on Thursday it "disputes" claims that it acted negligently but encouraged those who suffered property damage or livestock losses from the fire to submit claims.

  • "Xcel Energy has been cooperating with the investigations into the wildfires and has been conducting its own review," it said.
  • "Based on currently available information, Xcel Energy acknowledges that its facilities appear to have been involved in an ignition of the Smokehouse Creek fire."

The big picture: After igniting, the fire grew extremely rapidly, becoming the largest fire in state history just three days later.

  • It was driven by dry grasses cured by freezing temperatures earlier in the winter, high winds and abnormally high temperatures
  • The Smokehouse Creek Fire is just one of several wildfires burning across the panhandle. Just southwest of it, the Windy Deuce Fire has burned over 144,200 acres and is 81% contained.
  • The Grape Vine Creek Fire to the south has torched more 34,8oo Acres and is 77% contained.

Go deeper: How wildfires impact mental health

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