Wildfire Report Sparks Concern Over Power Line Safety

Photo by Jeff Heimsath for KUT News.

Kate Stein's home in Steiner Ranch was destroyed by fire in 2011.

A report released by the Travis County Fire Marshall last week confirmed what many had already suspected: the Steiner Ranch Fire that destroyed 23 homes during last year’s infamous Labor Day wildfires was started by power lines.

County investigators believe the fire was likely started when high winds caused Austin Energy electrical lines to slap together, throwing molten metal on the dry grass below.

Travis County Fire Marshal Hershel Lee told KUT News that his office had been holding off on releasing the report until other private investigations were completed. But Lee says now he’s not sure when those investigations will be finished. So the Fire Marshall’s office decided to release the report a couple days before Thanksgiving.

“We are hoping that by releasing the information we have that people will have some bit of closure about the cause of the fire,” said Lee.

The fact that this fire, and the two other major fires that weekend, are all linked to power lines could force a re-evaluation of power line upkeep and safety, said Travis County fire Marshall Hershel Lee.

A previous investigation found the fires that broke out on the same weekend in Spicewood, Texas were also caused by power lines. The Bastrop Complex Wildfire, the most destructive fire in Texas history also began that weekend. It was caused by trees being blown into power lines, according to a Texas Forest Service report.

Lee says that power line safety standards in Texas are governed by the National Electric Safety Code devised by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association [IEEE].

He says its not the responsibility of County fire marshals to inspect lines.

“But if the amount of fires that occur in any given day tend to lead towards a single cause, then the people who write those codes would most likely take a look at those codes to see if there needs to be any revisions to them,” Lee said.

StateImpact Texas has left a message with the IEEE to inquire if any such review is underway.

Austin Energy is facing a lawsuit over the Steiner Ranch fire from the widow of a Travis County Constable who collapsed and died while assisting families in Steiner Ranch.

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