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Texas utility says its equipment appears to have sparked the largest wildfire in state history

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Power lines ignited massive wildfires across the Texas Panhandle that destroyed homes and killed thousands of livestock, officials said Thursday, including the largest blaze in state history that the utility provider Xcel Energy said its equipment appeared to have sparked.

The Texas A&M Forest Service said its investigators have concluded that the Smokehouse Creek fire was ignited by power lines, as was the nearby Windy Deuce fire.

The utility provider Xcel Energy said Thursday that its equipment appeared to have played a role in igniting the Smokehouse Creek fire, though it did not believe its equipment was responsible for the Windy Deuce fire.

The Smokehouse Creek fire burned nearly 1,700 square miles (4,400 square kilometers) and destroyed hundreds of structures. The Minnesota-based company said in a statement that it disputes claims that “it acted negligently” in maintaining and operating infrastructure.

“Based on currently available information, Xcel Energy acknowledges that its equipment appear to have been involved in an ignition of the Smokehouse Creek fire,” the company stated.

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.

The Smokehouse Creek fire was among a cluster of fires that ignited in the rural Panhandle last week and prompted evacuation orders in a handful of small communities. That wildfire, which also spilled into neighboring Oklahoma, was about 44% contained as of Wednesday.

Officials save said that as many as 500 structures may have been destroyed in the fires.

A lawsuit filed Friday in Hemphill County had alleged that a downed power line near the town of Stinnett on Feb. 26 sparked the blaze. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Stinnett homeowner Melanie McQuiddy against Xcel Energy Services Inc. and two other utilities, alleged the blaze started “when a wooden pole defendants failed to properly inspect, maintain and replace, splintered and snapped off at its base.”

Dale Smith, who operates a large cattle Ranch east of Stinnett said he lost an estimated 30 to 50 head of cattle out of the 3,000 that graze on his property.

“We’re still trying to tally up the cattle losses,” Smith said. “It burned probably 70-80% of the ranch.”

Smith said much of the grazing land will grow back quickly with the proper rain and moisture, but he said they also lost several 100-year-old Cottonwood trees that dotted the ranch. Firefighters were able to save three camps on the ranch that included barns and other structures.

Smith said he believes a faulty power line sparked the blaze which quickly spread because of high winds.

“These fires are becoming a regular occurrence. Lives are being lost. Livestock are being lost. Livelihoods are being lost. It’s a sad story that repeats itself again and again, because public utility companies and oil companies responsible for these power lines aren’t keeping them maintained.”

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

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