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The Texas Tribune
The Texas Tribune
Jayme Lozano Carver

Texas wildfires continue growing as firefighters struggle to contain massive Panhandle blazes

LUBBOCK — Five raging wildfires in the Texas Panhandle collectively worsened Wednesday and have already burned more than 1 million acres of land, an amount of land that's nearly as big as the Grand Canyon National Park.

The Smokehouse Creek fire, which started Monday afternoon in Hutchinson County, grew from 100,000 to 500,000 acres within 24 hours, according to Texas A&M Forest Service. By Wednesday afternoon, the fire burned 850,000 acres. It is the second largest wildfire in Texas history, and was only 3% contained.

Another fire in Moore County, about 35 miles west of Hutchinson County, has burned 142,000 acres since Monday. It was 30% contained by Wednesday afternoon.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration covering 60 counties in response to the wildfire activity, calling for the Texas Division of Emergency Management to send additional resources and firefighters to the Panhandle.

Screenshot of a map of the fires raging in the Texas Panhandle taken at 8:44 A.M. on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024.
Screenshot of a map of the fires raging in the Texas Panhandle taken at 8:44 A.M. on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (Credit: Texas A&M Forest Service)

Residents from Canadian, a small town of about 2,300 people that was ravaged by the largest fire of the bunch, were allowed to return to their homes Wednesday. The fire burned through approximately 40 homes in Hemphill County, according to the latest estimates by Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Kendall. Kendall said the agency is continuing to gather the complete extent of the damage.

“We’re just trying to figure out what the needs are right now,” Kendall said. “But we don’t know exactly what’s needed. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

An additional three firetrucks arrived today from Amarillo to support the county’s effort to suppress the fires, Kendall said.

Officials in Hemphill County will begin assessing "the totality of the damage" and contacting the individuals whose property was damaged or lost to the fires, County Judge Lisa Johnson said in a statement. City services would resume today, the statement said.

Officials ordered nearly 5,000 residents in the Panhandle cities of Canadian, Fritch and Glazier to either evacuate or shelter in place Tuesday as the separate wildfires engulfed the region. Videos on social media showed the chaotic scenes of the fire spreading and herds of cattle fleeing. Residents in Hemphill County, where Canadian is, were initially told to evacuate as the Smokehouse Creek fire spread and burned more than 250,000 acres within a day. As firefighters worked to contain the fire in Canadian, about 100 miles northeast of Amarillo, evacuation efforts hit a snag as the main roadway was blocked by the fire.

While Amarillo has largely been able to avoid the fires, aside from an evacuation order in nearby Mesilla Park, the city's air quality has been impacted. The National Weather Service of Amarillo warned residents the Interstate 40 corridor had poor air quality and that they should keep themselves and pets indoors as much as possible.

Brittany Studer, an Amarillo resident, was cooking dinner when she started smelling the smoke in the air. She checked the alerts for Fritch, where she has family, and saw the exits were closed.

“There were people who couldn’t get out even if they tried, and I lost my mind with that,” Studer said. “I have a lot of family there. I had no clue if they’re going to be OK.”

Studer’s fears came to life — her cousin, Rian Hightower, was stuck in Fritch as the fire closed in on the town.

Hightower was watching her sister’s children when the fire broke out. Hightower, her dog and the kids had to flee her home as fire engulfed the neighborhood. She watched in the rearview mirror as her home went up in flames.

When Studer took her kids to school Wednesday morning, she said smoke was still coming up from the ground and ash covering her front porch. Studer started a GoFundMe for her cousin in the aftermath.

“We know this is an area that has droughts, and wildfires do happen,” Studer said. “It’s just never come to a point where it’s this close and affecting people the way it did.”

A federal facility housing nuclear weapons northeast of Amarillo evacuated staff Tuesday over potential threats posed by the encroaching fires. In a statement, officials with the Pantex Plant — one of six nuclear weapons manufacturers in the U.S. — said they did so out of an "abundance of caution.” The fire did not reach the facility, and the plant resumed normal operations Wednesday. All weapons and special materials were unaffected.

The dense smell of smoke from the fires reached Lubbock, 120 miles south, and the rest of the region Tuesday night, carried in by winds from a cold front. Lubbock's National Weather Service warned residents to expect reduced visibilities. El Paso's weather station reported visibility issues due to the smoke, nearly 545 miles southwest of Canadian.

City officials in Borger said the fires have slowed down as a result of decreased wind speeds, but Highway 136 between Borger and Amarillo is still closed. Residents were encouraged to avoid traveling through the area as much as possible to give emergency responders the space to work on controlling the fire.

Officials also said residents of Fritch could not return yet, as many neighborhoods are unsafe and without power or water. Residents can find shelter at the Johnson Park Youth Center in Borger in the meantime.

Shortly after the mandatory order was announced, the Hemphill County Sheriff’s Office shared on social media that Highway 60/83 was shut down. The sheriff’s office instructed residents to go to the gym at Canadian High School to shelter in place.

“There were earlier evacuation orders, but it got to the point where the fire was close enough that it was no longer safe to travel on those roads,” said Kari Hines, a public information officer for Texas A&M Forest Service. “It’s safer to stay inside structures, at least while the main body of the fire passes.”

Hines said crews have responded from across the state and are working in long shifts to contain the fire before taking breaks to rest.

Photos and videos on social media show the small towns surrounded by smoke billowing into the air, turning the sky a brown hue, as the fires continued.

The High Plains region was under a red flag warning to start the week, as warmer temperatures were expected along with strong winds. According to the Texas A&M Forest Service, the Smokehouse Creek fire started in tall grasses, and wind gusts that ranged from 40-50 miles per hour pushed the fire toward Pampa, about 40 miles southeast.

Wildfire risk is generally expected to increase across the state as climate change progresses because the landscape will be drier and there will be more vegetation to burn, according to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon's 2021 report on extreme weather.

Those effects will still vary regionally, according to Nielsen-Gammon's findings. In the next two decades, the chance for wildfires may increase more slowly in the Panhandle and Far West Texas because there will be less plant matter to burn. But more areas of the state to the east may begin to suffer from wildfires as the plants there dry up in the heat.

Nielsen-Gammon said that fire-prone communities need to be prepared no matter how much their risk increases.

"You can look at the trends in temperature and humidity and say that the source of fires might become more likely, happen earlier in the year," Nielsen-Gammon said.

Emily Foxhall and Carlos Nogueras Ramos contributed to this report.

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