Texas Utility Sues Tree Trimmer Over Bastrop Fires

A $35 million lawsuit filed by a utility alleges a tree-trimming company failed to properly maintain vegetation before 2011 Central Texas wildfires destroyed nearly 1,700 homes.

The lawsuit filed by Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative names Asplundh Tree Expert Co. of Willow Grove, Pa., the Austin American-Statesman reported Wednesday. Asplundh spokeswoman Ronnie Gauker said the company declined comment Thursday.

The Labor Day 2011 blaze was started when strong winds knocked down trees that crashed into overhead power lines, causing sparks, according to a Texas A&M Forest Service investigation.

Bluebonnet has been sued by more than 50 homeowners whose residences burned in Bastrop County, 30 miles east of Austin.

Bluebonnet in 2005 contracted with Asplundh to manage vegetation, including trimming trees, along the utility's 11,000 miles of power lines in 14 counties, including Bastrop. The lawsuit includes a signed agreement between the utility and Asplundh in which the contractor assumes responsibility and liability for any destruction of property that isn't caused by negligence on behalf of Bluebonnet.

Bluebonnet spokesman Will Holford said the utility is suing to protect its ratepayers.

"We are always going to do what is in the best interests of our members," Holford said. "That duty led us to file a lawsuit against Asplundh, the company we hired for its expertise in vegetation management. We recently learned through the legal process that it appears Asplundh failed to perform the work it was hired to do according to our contract."

Bluebonnet stopped using Asplundh earlier this year, Holford said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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