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Bastrop, Texas, Fires Spark Awareness of the Duty of Utility Companies to Maintain Safe Power Lines

September 4th was a monumental occasion for many Central Texas residents. A wildfire destroyed more than 1500 homes and took the lives of two people near Bastrop. According to fire officials, it was the “most destructive wildfire in Texas history.” Evidence suggests that the fire started as a result of the local electric company’s failure to keep their power lines free from debris.

An investigation revealed that the Bastrop, Texas, fires started when heavy winds caused a pine tree to collapse on top of power lines located roughly 25 miles east of Austin. The collapse in-turn caused the dry vegetation located below to catch fire, allowing the flames to spread quickly to nearby homes.

Many would conclude that the fires were the result of a simple Act of God; high winds, extremely hot temperatures and drought, a recipe for disaster, caused the fire to occur. However, some indicate that despite the harsh climate conditions, the fire was most likely preventable.

The Duty of a Utility Company

In many states, power or utility companies that own or control power lines or equipment have a duty to maintain their property. They are given what’s known as a utility easement-essentially a legal right to go onto another’s property-to do so.

In Texas, the law specifically says that any “municipal electric utility shall construct, operate, and maintain its lines for the transmission and distribution of electric energy along highways and at other places in accordance with the national electrical safety code.”

Lawsuit Filed Against Texas Electric Provider

Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative was the local electric provider that offered service to residents in the area. According to the law, they had a duty to remove trees, branches or debris that was within a certain distance of the power lines in order to prevent fires from occurring. A lawsuit has since been filed against the utility company alleging they failed to do so.

To make matters worse, Bluebonnet was seemingly conscious of the danger. According to the company’s annual meeting minutes posted on their website, Bluebonnet CEO Mark Rose said he was aware of the climate concerns of the state and knew of the wildfires that already occurred in Texas.

It remains to be seen the conclusive damage caused to homeowners as a result of the Bastrop, Texas, fires. In the meantime, the homeowners and other affected parties are seeking legal recourse against Bluebonnet for damage to their homes and property as well as medical expenses, mental anguish and court costs associated with the fires.

Records indicate that Bluebonnet faced a similar suit in 2009 when 26 Texas homes were destroyed in a fire.