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Investigation Finds Spicewood Fire Caused by Power Lines

Teresa Vieira for KUT News

A wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes in Spicewood last September was caused by power lines slapping together, according to an investigation released today by the Travis County Fire Marshal.

Investigators examined burn patterns and conducted interviews with witnesses. They found that wind speeds of up to 24 miles per hour “likely contributed to the electrical lines coming into contact with each other.” When that happened, it caused hot molten material to fall to the ground and spark the blaze that consumed almost 6,500 acres, investigators concluded.

“The lines had a considerable amount of slack in them,” Fire Marshal Hershel Lee said. “When you have a slack in the lines they are subject to movement by heavy winds.”

The Spicewood fire – also known as the Pedernales One Fire – destroyed 60 structures including 45 homes, and scorched almost 6,500 acres. The challenge of fighting the flames in the uneven terrain of the Hill Country was compounded by the fact that other large wildfires were already underway on September 4, 2011. Those included fires in Steiner Ranch, Cedar Park, Pflugerville, and in Bastrop –the largest of the wildfires that went on to consume 34,000 acres and destroy 1,600 homes.

The power lines are owned by the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, Lee said. In an emailed statement, the utility said it has not yet received a copy of the Travis County Fire Marshal's report. 

"The Cooperative’s investigation regarding this matter is ongoing," the statement said. "PEC strives to maintain a safe and reliable system for its members, and we encourage all members to report any conditions they consider unsafe and potentially hazardous."

The large fire in Bastrop was also found to have been caused by power lines. However, in that case, the Texas Forest Service concluded that downed trees knocked live power lines into dry brush. 

At least one lawsuit has been filed against the Bluebonnett Electric Cooperative in that case. The utility's CEO Mark Rose called the lawsuit a "misguided attempt to blame Bluebonnet for a terrible incident that we could not control."

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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