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Saturday, June 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Class Blames Utility|for Texas Wildfire

BASTROP, Texas (CN) - The devastating September wildfire that burned 1,600 homes southeast of Austin was caused by an electric company's poorly maintained easements that allowed power lines to become tangled in a tinderbox of trees, 17 named plaintiffs say in a class action.

The class sued Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative in Bastrop County Court. Lead plaintiff Joni Jack claims that despite record-breaking heat and statewide drought, the electricity co-op failed to clear overgrown trees and brush from its easements.

Dead trees toppled onto power lines in two places on Sept. 4, which set off the inferno, according to the complaint. Thirty-four thousand acres burned, including more than 1,600 homes and outbuildings, in the Bastrop Fire alone, the class says, citing a Sept. 22 report from the Texas Forest Service.

The Bastrop Fire was one of thousands (sic) that torched nearly 3.8 million acres in Texas this year. More than 23,000 fires in Texas burned more than 2,700 homes during this year's fire season - 1,939 of the homes burned over Labor Day weekend, according to federal statistics.

The Bastrop Fire, which killed two people, was the worst single wildfire in state history.

The class action adds: "The Texas Forest Service investigation found that there was no evidence of any cause of the Bastrop Fire other than defendant's power lines".

The proposed class consists of residents who suffered property damage from the fire, but excludes those who claim personal injuries or lost profits.

The proposed class is represented by Robert Kizer of Austin and Joe Grady Tuck of Bastrop.

In a separate complaint, three more plaintiffs say the Bluebonnet Co-op knew of the hazards, as a tree hit a power line and ignited a previous Bastrop fire in 2009.

"The downed power line started a fire that burned 1,491 acres and destroyed 26 homes, 44 outbuildings and 20 businesses," lead plaintiff Brandon Strambler says in the complaint. "The tree that snapped at the fire's point of origin was in or near an easement owned by Bluebonnet."

Strambler's complaint sets the scenario for the disaster: "By September 2011, 87 percent of Texas was experiencing 'exceptional' drought conditions as measured by the U.S. Drought Monitor. 2011 was not 'one of', but was 'the worst' one year drought in Texas history. By at least May 2011, Bluebonnet knew that the combination of strong winds, distressed trees and overhead power lines posed an extreme risk of fire danger. Indeed, Bluebonnet's CEO, Mark Rose, opened Bluebonnet's annual meeting on May 10, 2011 by acknowledging '[p]ole fires are a constant threat in these conditions.'" (Quotes and brackets in complaint.)

Strambler and his co-plaintiffs seek damages for property damage and personal injuries. They are represented by William Rossick of Austin.

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