Spicewood families launch lawsuit seeking damages in 2011 Labor Day wildfire

Very little remained of the homes in the Spicewood area including property along Paleface Ranch Road after a 6,500-acre wildfire blaze swept through far western Travis County in September 2011. Officials said 34 homes were destroyed along with damages to another 33 structures. File Photo

CONNIE SWINNEY • PICAYUNE STAFF

SPICEWOOD — A group of property owners have launched a lawsuit, alleging Pedernales Electric Cooperative’s lack of power line maintenance caused a wildfire which scorched thousands of acres and damaged dozens of homes in September 2011.Several property owners along County Road 303 in the neighborhoods of Paleface Point and Haynie Flat Road filed the lawsuit in Travis County District Court.

“They’re alleging that Pedernales’ pole near Paleface Ranch Road was improperly anchored and because it was improperly anchored this particular pole leaned, causing the distribution lines to come into contact with some low-voltage telephone lines, and when they did the contact created arcing, which is sparks,” said Dave Wenholz, attorney for the plaintiffs. “The sparks fell on the vegetation below and caused a fire.”

The plaintiffs are seeking damages for the loss and diminished market value of property, personal items, living expenses and mental anguish, the lawsuit states.

“These folks are very conservative people who don’t look to file lawsuits. The motivation behind the suits were not a money grab. It’s an accountability issue,” Wenholz said. “[PEC] can learn from what happened and hopefully prevent it from happening again.”

The fire burned for nearly two weeks in rugged dry terrain under windy conditions before firefighters snuffed the blaze.

The Travis County Fire Marshal’s Office concluded in an August 2012 report that the “probable” source of the fire originated on private property at the base of the electric pole, in an area where about a foot of dry vegetation had taken root.

“The initial report was interpreted as an accidental fire, which led people to believe that no one was at fault,”  Wenholz said. “There was a post analysis section.”

A “post investigation” entry stated that private fire investigators and electrical engineers inspected the site as well.

“[T]hey discovered one of the line guy wires anchors was damaged and was not functioning properly prior to the fire, therefore making the line in question susceptible to line slap and/or whip,” the report stated. A guy wire is a cable which is used to brace a pole to the ground.

As a result, the lawsuit alleges culpability on the part of PEC.

“PEC failed in its duty to properly install and maintain the power lines and the areas surrounding the right-of-way,” according to the lawsuit.

A statement by PEC questions the conclusiveness of the fire marshal report and referred to an investigation by the cooperative’s insurance company.

“The Travis County Fire Marshal issued a report in August 2012 that was not conclusive in regards to the Spicewood fire’s cause,” the statement reads. “There is an ongoing investigation to learn additional information relevant to its cause.

PEC, based in Johnson City, is the largest co-op in the country with more than 250,000 members.

connie@thepicayune.com