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Largest wildfire in Texas history was ignited by power line, A&M Forest Service says

A burnt road sign in front of desert land blackened by wildfires.
Rachel Osier Lindley
The Texas Newsroom
Xcel Energy issued a statement acknowledging that “its facilities appear to have been involved in an ignition of the Smokehouse Creek fire."

Power lines are the cause of two wildfires that have burned more than 1 million acres in the Panhandle, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Juan Rodriguez, a public information officer for the service, told Texas Standard that its law enforcement investigators had concluded their examination into the source of the Smokehouse Creek and Windy Deuce fires.

On Thursday morning, Xcel Energy issued a statement acknowledging that “its facilities appear to have been involved in an ignition of the Smokehouse Creek fire,” which Rodriguez said can happen during periods of high winds.

“In this case, we saw winds that were over 60 and 70 miles an hour. And so when the winds are doing that, driving down the roadways, you can just see power lines just bouncing up and down,” he said. “It’s bound to cause one of these power lines to fail or something like that. So, you know, one of them or some of them may have fallen or just got out just due to the sheer wind.”

Xcel also said in its statement that it has been cooperating with investigations into the fires and conducting its own review but "disputes claims that it acted negligently in maintaining and operating its infrastructure; however, we encourage people who had property destroyed by or livestock lost in the Smokehouse Creek fire to submit a claim to Xcel Energy through our claims process."

Storms are developing across the state, which is good news for the Panhandle, where humidity and precipitation will help firefighters who have been battling the devastating blazes.

The Roughneck Fire in Hutchinson County is now 100% contained. But there are four other wildfires in that area – including the enormous Smokehouse Creek Fire, the largest in state history – that are in various stages of containment.

As of Thursday morning, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, at 1,059,570 acres, was about 44% contained, while the Windy Deuce Fire was 81% contained and a little bit over 144,000 acres, Rodriguez said. The Grapevine Creek Fire was 77% contained at 34,000 acres.

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Rodriguez said that containment percentage is based on a number of factors.

“It’s a confidence level placed there by the incident commander over that fire,” he said. “They’re looking at the current condition, they’re looking at the complexity of the fire, and they’re looking at forecasted conditions as well.

“They’re looking at what resources they have and all these things in order to base their confidence that this fire will no longer get out, make any more runs, and it won’t make any more threats to life and property safety.”

The Panhandle has seen dry conditions over the last week, which has helped the fires – specifically the Smokehouse Creek blaze – spread to such large acreages.

“We’ve had an influx of resources come in to be able to assist, but it’s still a large area to cover,” Rodriguez said. Over a million acres is “a lot of ground to cover, very rough terrain.”

Rodriguez said he hopes the coming weather offers some relief.

“In the northern areas of the Texas Panhandle, they are forecast to get snow, and other areas here in the Panhandle were forecast to get some rain,” he said. “So we’re really keeping our fingers crossed on that one.”

There have been two confirmed fatalities, and the number of livestock killed in the fire is in the thousands.

News also broke this week that Zeb Smith, a volunteer fire chief in Fritch, Texas, who had been fighting the wildfires all week, died after responding to an unrelated house fire.

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