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Wildfire grows into 2nd-largest in Texas history as flames menace multiple small towns

By SEAN MURPHY and JIM VERTUNO, SEAN MURPHY and JIM VERTUNO, Associated Press
Published: February 28, 2024, 12:10pm
3 Photos
This image taken from Greenville Fire-Rescue&rsquo;s facebook page on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 shows fires in the Texas Panhandle. A fast-moving wildfire burning through the Texas Panhandle grew into the second-largest blaze in state history, forcing evacuations and triggering power outages as firefighters struggled to contain the widening flames.
This image taken from Greenville Fire-Rescue’s facebook page on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 shows fires in the Texas Panhandle. A fast-moving wildfire burning through the Texas Panhandle grew into the second-largest blaze in state history, forcing evacuations and triggering power outages as firefighters struggled to contain the widening flames. (Greenville Fire-Rescue via AP) Photo Gallery

CANADIAN, Texas (AP) — A cluster of wildfires scorched the Texas Panhandle on Wednesday, including a blaze that grew into one of the largest in state history, as flames moved with alarming speed and blackened the landscape across a vast stretch of small towns and cattle ranches.

Authorities warned that the damage to communities on the high plains could be extensive.

Known as the Smoke House Creek Fire, the largest blaze expanded to more than 1,300 square miles (3,367 square kilometers) and jumped into parts of neighboring Oklahoma. It is now larger than the state of Rhode Island, and the Texas A&M Forest Service said the flames were only about 3% contained.

The largest fire recorded in state history was the 2006 East Amarillo Complex fire, which burned about 1,400 square miles and resulted in 13 deaths.

Authorities had not reported any deaths or injuries as of Wednesday morning while huge plumes of smoke billowed hundreds of feet in the air. But officials warned residents of potentially large property losses.

“There was one point where we couldn’t see anything,” said Greg Downey, 57, describing his escape from the flames as flames bore down on his neighborhood. “I didn’t think we’d get out of it.”

“When we came out, the sky had gone black.”

Hemphill County Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Kendall described the charred terrain as being “like a moonscape. … It’s just all gone.”

Kendall said about 40 homes were burned around the perimeter of the town of Canadian, but no buildings were lost inside the community.

“We started getting those losses in the dark, so we didn’t really know what we had until this morning, until we could see,” he said.

The town of Fritch, with a population of less than 2,000, lost hundreds of homes in a 2014 fire and appeared to be hit hard again.

The people in that area are probably not “prepared for what they’re going to see if they pull into town,” Hutchinson County Emergency Management spokesperson Deidra Thomas said in a social media livestream. She compared the damage to a tornado.

The town remained unsafe for people to return, she said.

Tresea Rankin videotaped her own home in the town of Canadian as it burned.

“Thirty-eight years of memories, that’s what you were thinking,” Rankin said of watching the flames destroy her house. “Two of my kids were married there … But you know, it’s OK, the memories won’t go away.”

Authorities have not said what ignited the fires, but strong winds, dry grass and unseasonably warm temperatures fed the blazes. Near Borger, a community of about 13,000 people, emergency officials at one point late Tuesday answered questions from panicked residents on Facebook and told them to get ready to leave if they had not already.

“It was like a ring of fire around Borger. There was no way out … all four main roads were closed,” said Adrianna Hill, 28, whose home was within about a mile of the fire. She said a wind that blew the fire in the opposite direction “saved our butts.”

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties. The encroaching flames caused the main facility that disassembles America’s nuclear arsenal to pause operations Tuesday night, but it was open for normal work on Wednesday.

The blazes tore through sparsely populated counties on the vast, high plains that are punctuated by cattle ranches and oil rigs.

The weather forecast provided some hope for firefighters — cooler temperatures, less wind and possibly rain on Thursday. But for now, the situation was dire in some areas.

Sustained winds of up to 45 mph (72 kph), with gusts of up to 70 mph (113 kph), caused the fires that were spreading east to turn south, threatening new areas, forecasters said. But winds calmed down after a cold front came through Tuesday evening, said Peter Vanden Bosch, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Amarillo.

“Fortunately, the winds have weakened quite significantly,” Vanden Bosch said Wednesday. Breezy conditions were expected again Friday, and fire-friendly weather could return by the weekend, he said.

As the evacuation orders mounted Tuesday, county and city officials implored residents to turn on emergency alert services on their cellphones and be ready to evacuate immediately.

The Pantex plant, northeast of Amarillo, evacuated nonessential staff Tuesday night out of an “abundance of caution,” said Laef Pendergraft, a spokesperson for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s production office at Pantex. Firefighters remained in case of an emergency.

The plant has long been the main U.S. site for both assembling and disassembling atomic bombs. It completed its last new bomb in 1991 and has dismantled thousands since.

Pantex tweeted early Wednesday that the facility “is open for normal day shift operations” and that all personnel were to report for duty according to their assigned schedule.

As the fires raged Tuesday, evacuations were ordered in several towns in a swath northeast of Amarillo.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire spread from Texas into neighboring Roger Mills County in western Oklahoma, where officials encouraged people in the Durham area to flee. Officials did not know yet how large the fire was in Oklahoma.

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An unrelated fire in Ellis County, Oklahoma, on the Oklahoma-Texas state line, led Tuesday to the evacuations of the towns of Shattuck and Gage. The evacuation order was lifted hours later, according to county Emergency Management Director Riley Latta. The fire had unknown origins and burned an estimated 47 square miles, according to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.

The weather service issued red-flag warnings and fire-danger alerts for several other states through the midsection of the country, as winds of over 40 mph (64 kph) combined with warm temperatures, low humidity and dry winter vegetation to make conditions ripe for wildfires.

In central Nebraska, a mower sparked a prairie fire that burned a huge swath of grassland roughly the size of the state’s largest city of Omaha, state officials said Tuesday.

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