The Leon Law Firm is working with the Roger Rider Firm and The Williams Kherker Law Firm to represent the plaintiffs affected by the Wilderness Ridge Fire. Read below for an update as the trial gets underway.
BASTROP — Jurors in a Bastrop County courtroom are hearing testimony in a civil suit claiming that Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative was negligent and caused a wildfire in 2009 that damaged 26 homes and was the most destructive fire in Central Texas at the time.
The jury must determine whether a falling tree knocked down sagging power lines that sparked the fire in the utility's right of way.
Attorneys for the more than two dozen plaintiffs, who are homeowners seeking $6 million in damages, are saying that there was no tree and that the fire was caused by the utility's faulty wire connections, sagging lines and plenty of combustible material — wood chips — on the ground.
In opening statements before Bastrop County District Judge Reva Towslee-Corbett on Wednesday, plaintiffs' attorney Armistead Easterby said eyewitness Jonathan Sommers, a Marine veteran who was volunteering at the nearby Wilderness Ridge camp for children, was the first person to reach the fire after hearing an explosion.
"He saw flames, but what he didn't see was a tree that broke lines to the ground," Easterby said.
Bluebonnet attorney Phil Romero disputed that, saying co-op employee Tim Grimm not only found a 60-foot pine tree but cut it up with a chain saw while it was still burning to preserve it for evidence. Bluebonnet contends that the tree was weakened by ips beetles and fell on power lines that windy day. That same day, Feb. 28, Bluebonnet sent out a news release saying the midday fire began with a power line downed by a blown-over tree that was more than a foot outside the right of way that Bluebonnet maintains for its power lines.
The Wilderness Ridge fire occurred during a drought and on a day when winds reached more than 30 miles per hour. According to a Texas Forest Service case study, the fire destroyed 26 homes, 20 businesses and 1,491 acres near Alum Creek Road between Bastrop and Smithville.
The second defendant in the suit, McCoy Tree Surgery, was a subcontractor hired by Bluebonnet to trim or remove trees and other vegetation along its right of way. The plaintiffs say McCoy was negligent in its work.
"A McCoy employee will testify the (wood) chipping they did was left on the ground of the easement," Easterby said. The attorney said the wood chips provided the fuel for the fast-moving fire.
McCoy attorney Gregory Holloway said the company was hired in 2007 to maintain 80 miles of power lines and finished its work by Thanksgiving that year. McCoy was guided by Bluebonnet's vegetation management policy, he said, adding that landowners sometimes asked employees to leave wood chips behind.
"That's the end of McCoy's involvement," Holloway said. "I don't know what caused this fire. When it happened, (McCoy) hadn't been there in a year and a half. McCoy shouldn't be in this courtroom."
Judging from opening statements, jurors will hear a lot about electronic parts and how power lines are assembled and attached to utility poles.
The seven women and five men will listen to homeowners and dozens of witnesses, including the employees from the Wilderness Ridge camp, Bluebonnet and McCoy Tree Surgery. Towslee-Corbett said earlier this week that the case could last three weeks or longer.
Bluebonnet is facing a separate suit by three victims of the Bastrop County Complex Fire that broke out Labor Day. They claim the utility failed to remove dead trees and branches near the power lines that sparked a fire along Charolais Drive off Texas 21.
A Texas Forest Service investigation concluded that trees crashing into the overhead power lines probably caused the fire that eventually consumed 33,000 acres, destroyed 1,670 homes and killed two people.
That case is before Bastrop County District Judge Terry Flenniken and has yet to be scheduled.