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Massive wildfires ignited by power lines


Two wildfires that burned more than 1 million acres in the Panhandle were caused by downed power lines, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Juan Rodriguez, with the service, told the Texas Standard that its law enforcement investigators had concluded their probe into the source of the Smokehouse Creek and Windy Deuce fires.

“In this case, we saw winds that were over 60 and 70 miles an hour. And so, when the winds are doing that, driving down the roadways, you can just see power lines just bouncing up and down,” Rodriguez said. “It’s bound to cause one of these power lines to fail or something like that. So, you know, one of them or some of them may have fallen or just got out just due to the sheer wind.”

Xcel Energy last Thursday issued a statement acknowledging that its facilities “appear to have been involved in an ignition of the Smokehouse Creek fire.”

The company is urging people who lost property or livestock during the fires to submit a claim to the company.

As of Sunday, the Smokehouse Creek fire was 87% contained, while the Windy Deuce fire was 92% contained.

Some incumbents lose in primary

At least nine Texas House incumbents targeted by Gov. Greg Abbott and others lost bids for reelection in the March primary, while eight more are headed to runoffs, The Dallas Morning News reported.

In addition, three sitting judges on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals lost their races after Attorney General Ken Paxton and former President Donald Trump endorsed their opponents.

Abbott spent more than $6 million to target incumbents who blocked his school choice proposal last year.

“He’s made it clear that if you cross him, you’re going to have to fight for your reelection,” Austin-based lobbyist and political consultant Bill Miller said. “For some people, that’s like, ‘Bring it on.’ For others, it means, ‘I quit.’”

House Speaker Dade Phelan faces a runoff without support from Abbott, who thus far has remained neutral in that race. Paxton and Trump backed his opponent, David Covey, after the House voted to impeach Paxton on corruption charges. The Senate ultimately acquitted Paxton.

Phelan trailed Covey in the March primary and called the upcoming runoff a battle for the “soul” of the Southeast Texas district.

“In the next couple of months, the deceit and vitriol we’ve witnessed from my opponent and his dark money allies is poised to escalate to even greater heights,” he said in a statement.

The Texas runoff election for races where no candidate exceeded 50% is on May 28. Early voting begins on May 20 and ends on May 24.

Charter school network placed under conservatorship

The state’s largest charter school network has been placed under conservatorship by the Texas Education Agency following a three-year investigation into its spending practices, the Texas Tribune reported. The arrangement is part of a settlement agreement between TEA and IDEA Public Schools, which has 143 campuses.

During the investigation, TEA learned IDEA officials used taxpayer dollars to purchase luxury driver services and spent $15 million to lease a private jet.

IDEA’s schools serve about 80,000 students in grades K-12. While independently run, they are funded with state money, totaling about $821 million in the current school year.

Under the arrangement, conservators have the authority to oversee and direct all district actions, though they will not fully take over governing the district.

IDEA said in a statement that it’s “pleased to have reached a settlement agreement … to resolve compliance issues our organization self-reported to regulators after an internal investigation in 2021.”

TPWD approves land swap with SpaceX

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission last week voted unanimously to swap 43 acres of state park to SpaceX in exchange for nearly 500 acres of privately-owned land near Port Isabel, the Texas Standard reported. The decision came despite hearing from Rio Grande Valley residents who opposed the swap.

The Boca Chica State Park land sought by SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, is spread around the company’s launch facilities. It contains some of the most sensitive habitats in the world, particularly for migrating shorebirds.

SpaceX has not purchased the 477 acres yet. TPWD will now conduct an environmental assessment of the land, which will include a 30-day comment period.

Dozens of Rio Grande Valley residents drove to Austin to attend the hearing and voice opposition. They questioned including why the hearing wasn’t held in Brownsville.

“The process, the notice and this public meeting seems to have been intended to impede participation by the public, especially those who would be most impacted by the decision,” Marisa Perales, an environmental justice attorney based in Austin, told commissioners.

Counties brace for massive traffic ahead of eclipse

Hundreds of thousands of tourists are expected to flock to the Hill Country and other small towns in the prime viewing path of a rare solar eclipse on April 8. Some counties have already issued emergency declarations to help them prepare and respond to an expected strain on their infrastructure, The Dallas Morning News reported.

Bell and Kerr counties have already issued emergency declarations, and San Saba County is expected to do so as well. Hill Country officials are urging residents to stay home, avoid driving, refill prescriptions, buy groceries and fuel vehicles several days before the eclipse.

Some counties expect their population to double or even triple as folks flock to Texas to glimpse the rare phenomenon.

When the moon passes between the sun and Earth, the eclipse will result in total darkness for more than four minutes in areas in the path of totality. It will enter the state southwest of Uvalde at 12:10 p.m. and exit at 3:06 p.m. north of Texarkana.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches, Lufkin and Cedar Park. Email: gborders@texaspress.com.


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