Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

What Sparked the Spicewood Fire

Photo courtesy of Lea Luchsinger

A new investigation reveals what sparked the Labor Day fire in Spicewood, outside of Austin, Texas.

As the anniversary of the Labor Day fires approaches, we’re beginning to get some answers on what was at fault.

As we reported earlier this week, the conditions at the time were the epitome of ‘perfect storm.’ Extreme heat, record drought, high winds and little humidity created a virtual powder keg. Compounding those well-known issues were the fact that many new communities had been built in greenbelts and woodlands, and fire departments that were cash-strapped and understaffed for a rash of fires of this magnitude.

What sparked each fire? In Bastrop, the culprit was power lines downed by dying trees, which has led to a lawsuit.

The Spicewood fire, aka Pedernales One, was originally reported as a brush fire. But a new investigation released by the Travis County Fire Marshal shows that the power lines in the community didn’t fall. Rather, winds forced them to slap together, sending “hot molten material” to the ground and sparking a fire that burned some 6,500 acres and destroyed 60 homes and structures.

Photo courtesy of Lea Luchsinger

Winds up to 24 mph caused power lines to slap together, sending hot molten material to the ground and sparking the Spicewood fire.

“The lines had a considerable amount of slack in them,” Travis County Fire Marshal Hershel Lee tells StateImpact Texas lead station KUT News. “When you have slack in the lines, they are subject to movement by heavy winds.”

At the time of the fire’s ignition, winds were blowing up to 24 miles an hour. The weather station nearest the fire source measured a temperature of 108 degrees at the time, according to the investigation. And the Spicewood fire hit at the same time as other fires in the area were already burning, so fire departments were  scrambling to combat blazes in other parts of the region, including the giant Bastrop fire.

In a statement, the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, which owns the lines, says that their own investigation into the fire is ongoing.

Nathan Bernier of KUT News contributed reporting to this article.

Read the full report:

This is part of a series on the Labor Day wildfires as part of a special project with KUT, Forged in Flames.

On Tuesday, September 4 at 3 p.m., KUT 90.5 FM will air a special one-hour documentary telling the story of the fires. It will air again Wednesday, Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. You can listen on air and online, and stay tuned for more this week. 


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