Uniting for Recovery: Ongoing Town Hall Meetings on the Smokehouse Creek Fire

Uniting for Recovery: Ongoing Town Hall Meetings on the Smokehouse Creek Fire

In the wake of the Smokehouse Creek Fire’s devastation, a critical town hall meeting was held in Canadian, Texas, on March 10, 2024, featuring Mikal Watts of Watts Law Firm LLP, an attorney with extensive experience in utility-caused wildfires. Joining him at the town hall meeting are co-counsel in the case, Joe L. Lovell of Lovell Hoffman Law PLLC and Scott W. Sherwood of Sherwood & Sherwood P.C. This assembly of experienced lawyers provided a roadmap for survivors seeking justice and accountability for one of the largest wildfires in Texas history.

This collaborative effort is deeply committed to addressing the aftermath of a disaster that has tragically taken lives, in addition to causing extensive damage to homes, livestock, and businesses. The gravity of the loss of life is paramount and stands at the forefront of the case, underscoring the profound impact of the disaster on the community. Through diligent investigation and expert consultations, the legal team is meticulously building a case that traces the tragedy back to a neglected utility pole, thereby illuminating the critical issue of utility negligence. This approach not only seeks justice for the material losses but, more importantly, honors the memory of those lost by holding responsible parties accountable.

The town hall was more than a legal briefing; it was a crucial step in the healing process, offering a supportive space for survivors to come together. Beyond seeking compensation, the lawsuit spearheaded by Watts and his colleagues aspires to drive significant changes in utility management and safety practices, advocating for a future where such disasters are a rarity.

The next town hall meetings discussing the Smokehouse Creek Fire will be held as follows: 

  • March 17, 2024
    • 3:00pm at Canadian – Palace Theater
    • 6:00pm at Stinnett – West Texas High School
  • March 24, 2024
    • 1:00 Canadian – Palace Theater
    • 4:00 Stinnett – West Texas High School (to be livestreamed on our YouTube Channel)

Summary of the Town Hall Meeting of March 10, 2024

Joe Lovell of Lovell Hoffman Law PLLC commenced the session with an acknowledgment of the repeated tragedies the community has faced due to wildfires. As someone deeply familiar with the Texas Panhandle and its history of fires, including the Pain Ranch fire in 1996 and the extensive wildfires of 2006, Lovell’s experience has made him a steadfast advocate for those affected by such disasters.

When the Smokehouse Creek Fire escalated beyond the grasslands to claim homes and towns, Lovell recognized the scale of the disaster was unprecedented. His extensive litigation experience in similar cases informed him that this situation demanded a formidable response. It was clear that the defendants in this case, utility companies, represented a challenge of a different magnitude, one that required extensive resources and a deep well of experience to confront effectively.

With this in mind, Lovell reached out to Mikal Watts of Watts Law Firm LLP, a wildfire attorney known for his successful litigation against large utility companies. Lovell and Watts had previously collaborated on a case following an electrical fire at a construction site in Amarillo, which resulted in severe injuries. 

Lovell’s decision to call on Watts for the Smokehouse Creek Fire litigation was rooted in this history of collaboration and success. He knew that Watts’ experience and the resources of Watts Law Firm LLP were essential in taking on the utility companies responsible for the fire. This strategic partnership underscores a committed effort to leverage collective expertise in fighting for the community’s right to safety and accountability, setting the stage for a rigorous pursuit of justice for the survivors of the Smokehouse Creek Fire.

Mikal Watts Presents Evidence on Utility Pole Failure: A Repeat Offense

Following Joe Lovell’s introduction at the town hall meeting in Canadian, Texas, Mikal Watts took the floor to share his strategic approach and insights into the Smokehouse Creek Fire litigation. Having navigated a landmark $13.5 billion settlement with PG&E over the California Camp Fires, Watts brought a wealth of experience in confronting utility giants whose negligence has led to devastating wildfires. His involvement in representing the wildfire survivors of Oregon, New Mexico, and Lahaina, Maui, further underscored a disturbing pattern: utility companies’ failure to maintain their equipment due to prioritizing profits over people’s safety, resulting in tragic loss of life, homes, and businesses.

Watts outlined the early steps taken in investigating the Smokehouse Creek Fire, including acquiring satellite images to pinpoint the fire’s origin. This meticulous approach quickly led to a significant discovery: a utility pole, snapped at its base, identical in its failure to one that had contributed to the Maui fire. This pole, inspected by Osmose and marked with a red tag signaling its instability and urgent need for replacement, stood as damning evidence of Xcel Energy’s awareness of the risk it posed.

Watts emphasized the importance of this discovery, not just as evidence of negligence, but as a symbol of the systemic issue at hand: utility companies’ disregard for the safety of the communities they serve. The parallels drawn between the poles in Maui and Texas highlighted a global issue of utility mismanagement and the dire need for change.

A United Front: The Importance of a Collective Legal Strategy

Recognizing the challenge of battling well-resourced utility companies, Watts stressed the value of a united legal front. He explained the significance of contracting with companies like Osmose for pole inspection and maintenance, noting that utilities cannot absolve themselves of responsibility through outsourcing. This point is crucial under Texas law and administrative rules, emphasizing the non-delegable duty of utilities to oversee their infrastructure’s safety.

Watts’ remarks highlighted the broader implications of the lawsuit beyond seeking justice for immediate losses. By challenging utility companies’ negligence and advocating for advanced safety technologies and practices, Watts aims to enact systemic changes. This proactive approach seeks not only to compensate the victims but also to drive significant improvements in utility management, ensuring the safety of communities and preventing future disasters.

Harnessing Expertise: From Cause to Compensation in Wildfire Recovery

Watts revealed plans to have Mike Schulz, a top fire cause and origin expert, visit the area on the 18th to investigate other fires residents might be concerned about, highlighting his commitment to uncovering the truth behind these tragedies.

With Schulz’s extensive background in fire and safety engineering, emergency management, and fire investigation, Watts assured attendees of the thorough examination of any new incidents reported. He stressed the importance of community members preserving any personal evidence from the fires, such as photos and videos, as these can be crucial in proving the events’ sequences and the affected individuals’ proximity to danger.

Watts also introduced Dr. John Brown, a distinguished expert in economic loss evaluation, who will play a critical role in calculating the damages suffered by fire victims. Dr. Brown’s extensive experience and empathetic approach ensure that every loss, from livestock to personal heirlooms, is accounted for accurately. He will work closely with survivors, employing sophisticated methods, including satellite imagery and drone footage, to assess the impact on properties and the environment comprehensively.

Dr. John Brown, accompanied by a skilled team, utilizes cutting-edge technology and methodologies to meticulously document the damages suffered by wildfire victims. Leveraging software like OnX, Land Glide, and Google Earth, Brown ensures accurate property boundary understanding and damage assessment. His innovative approach includes using a Rokon motorcycle for hard-to-reach areas and GPS technology to precisely locate and record damage on properties.

Brown’s comprehensive evaluation covers everything from infrastructure like fencing and water tanks to personal property losses, emphasizing the importance of the homeowners’ input for accurate damage assessment. Recognizing the profound impact on livestock and agriculture, Brown collaborates with specialized experts to evaluate these losses fully, acknowledging the deep personal and economic toll on the community.

The preservation of evidence, especially through photographs and videos taken by the community members, is crucial. These documents not only provide contemporaneous evidence of the fires’ impact but also help in proving the proximity of individuals to the danger zones. Brown’s process, which includes high-resolution drone imagery, satellite analysis, and detailed reporting, ensures that every aspect of the loss is captured and quantified for the litigation process.

This meticulous documentation process, supported by Watts Law Firm LLP’s sophisticated database, is designed to comprehensively capture and value each victim’s losses. The database facilitates the systematic compilation of all necessary information, from personal property to environmental damage, streamlining the process for a more efficient and effective pursuit of justice. Through this collaborative effort, the team aims not only to secure rightful compensation for the victims but also to push for systemic changes that prevent future wildfires, ensuring the safety and security of communities at risk.

Unity in Action: Strengthening Our Case Through Collective Power

Joining forces in the lawsuit against the responsible utility companies not only amplifies our collective voice but significantly strengthens our position. The greater our numbers, the more formidable we become, exerting unparalleled pressure on the defendants to address and compensate for their negligence. 

This unity is not just a symbol of shared resilience but a strategic move to ensure that claims are acknowledged and settled promptly. Moreover, by standing together, we distribute the costs of litigation more efficiently, making the pursuit of justice more accessible for each individual involved. Your participation is crucial; together, we can hold these companies accountable and secure the compensation our community rightfully deserves. Stand with us, and let’s demonstrate the undeniable power of collective action.

Mikal Watts

Written on behalf of Mikal Watts, and reviewed by Watts Law Firm LLP

Mikal C. Watts is Board-Certified in Personal Injury Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and is a Martindale-Hubbel AV Rated Lawyer.