Texas Panhandle wildfire hearings: Prescribed burns, utility maintenance big topics in day 2

The idea of setting small fires to prevent bigger fires is known as a prescribed burn. The process eliminates brush. 

On Wednesday, on the second day of the Texas House Panhandle Wildfire hearing, officials with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department urged the committee to encourage the use of prescribed burns. 

"I don’t pretend it’s the panacea and the answer to everything, but it is a tool," said Chris Schenck, the State Fire Program Leader for Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

Schenck in his presentation also claimed, "the risk of not burning is far greater than the risks of burning."

But the two public members of the committee voiced concerns about the practice. It was noted some prescribed burns, like the one in 2022 at Bastrop State Park, have gotten out of control, causing a lot of damage. 

"I'd like to go on record, it is my firm belief is that the Panhandle is not conducive to prescribed burns or anything of the sort, just because of the change in weather that occurred at the time of the year. You need to do that," said Committee member James Henderson.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire was sparked by a downed power line, which is owned by XCEL Energy.  

Texas A&M Forest Service investigator Kevin Pierce told the committee Wednesday he came to that conclusion shortly after going into the burn zone. He told Committee member Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) he did not determine how it broke or why it broke.

"It’s kind of irrelevant," said Officer Pierce when asked why he didn’t make that determination.  

The pole had cut marks on its base. Pierce testified the pole was tagged with a red flag, indicating it was to be replaced and not to be climbed. 

Pierce ruled out arson as a contributing factor, but said he didn’t get an answer about the chop marks. Rep. Burrows pressed Pierced about who he asked about the marks. Pierce testified he asked the attorney for XCEL Energy who was at the scene with him.

"I was told he made a couple of phone calls while we were there on scene, and then came back to me, said he was unable to get my question answered, but he would follow up with it and get back with me. And, still, he's still yet to get back with me," said Pierce.


Committee member Jason Abraham, in a recent interview with FOX 7, said the marks on the pole are part of the inspection process, apparently to remove rot and damage.

In a letter to committee Chair Ken King (R-Canadian), officials with Osmose, the company hired by XCEL Energy to do utility pole inspections, declined to attend the House hearing. The company offered to provide details later with King's staff, but the chairman expressed his doubts about that.

"After saying publicly they were going to work with anybody investigating this, they decided not to. So, I have little hope that they're going to show up to answer further questions, but we will certainly make that request based on their letter that they sent," said Rep. King.  

XCEL Energy has acknowledged its equipment was involved in the start of the fire and stated it is conducting its own investigation. The company has denied claims that it was negligent in maintaining and operating its infrastructure. 

The hearing wraps up on Thursday, April 4 with public testimony.