Utility pole inspection company declines to testify at Texas Panhandle wildfire investigation hearing

Article originally published on the Texas Tribune. Please see the original story here.

PAMPA — A company hired to inspect utility poles in the Panhandle declined to testify before Texas lawmakers Wednesday, as part of the state’s inquiry into the Smokehouse Creek fire — the largest wildfire in state history that burned more than 1 million acres and killed two.

Audience members scoffed when the committee announced Osmose Utilities Services, a Georgia-based company contracted by Xcel Energy to perform safety inspections, skipped its chance to address lawmakers during the three days of public hearings in Pampa.

State Rep. Ken King, a Canadian Republican, read a statement from the company at the start of the second day of hearings.

“Although Osmose cannot attend the Committee meeting this week, we welcome the opportunity to discuss fire mitigation-related service offerings and recommended best practices in the State of Texas with your staff should the Committee have additional questions,” the company’s statement said.

King, the committee’s chair, called Osmose’s decision not to appear puzzling.

“Our local utilities were more than happy to come and participate in this investigation, but this private corporation has evidently denied our request despite the situation in the Panhandle,” he said.

From left, Texas A&M Forest Service Fire Chief Wes Moorehead, Director of Texas A&M Forest Service, Al Davis, and Chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management Nim Kidd, sit before a House Committee investigating the Panhandle wildfires Tuesday, April 2, 2024 in Pampa. On Tuesday, testimony focused on topics relating to the largest wildfire in Texas history.


The committee is meeting in Pampa, a town of about 16,000 in Gray County, this week as part of its investigation into the series of wildfires, including the Smokehouse Creek fire, that scorched the Panhandle in late February and early March. Dozens of families have been displaced, hundreds of homes and ranches were damaged or destroyed, and thousands of cattle were killed.

The committee has five members, including state Reps. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock, Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi and King. All three are Republicans. Landowners Jason Abraham and James Henderson are public members of the committee. The committee plans to publish its report by May 1.

Kevin Pierce, a law enforcement officer for the Texas A&M Forest Service, told the committee its investigation into the fire concluded that a fallen decayed utility pole caused the Smokehouse Creek fire.

Xcel Energy previously acknowledged its “facilities appear to have been involved in an ignition of the Smokehouse Creek fire.”

During the investigation, Pierce noted he found chop marks at the base of the decayed utility pole and quickly noticed several others had the same markings.

“It was the first time in my 19 years of doing this seeing chop marks on poles,” he said.

Pierce said when he asked Xcel Energy about this, their representatives attempted to call Osmose because it seemed like it might be some type of inspection method. Osmose couldn’t be reached. Pierce said Osmose still has not responded to his questions.

“The best people to answer these questions are Osmose,” Pierce said.

Burrows pointed out that Mike Adams, CEO of Osmose, had told local and national media that their company was committed to fully cooperating with any local investigations into the cause of the fire.

“I don’t know if a PR team or a crisis management team told them to put out a statement, but they have refused to talk to us,” he told the audience.

Osmose in a statement to The Texas Tribune reaffirmed its commitment to helping the state’s investigation.

“Osmose is deeply concerned about the profound impact of the Panhandle Wildfires and is committed to assisting with all investigations,” the statement said. “Although we were unable to attend the Committee meeting on short notice, we sent the attached letter to the Investigative Committee and offered to meet with its staff to discuss fire mitigation and recommended best practices in the State of Texas.”

Both Xcel and Osmose are named in lawsuits stemming from the Panhandle fires.

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