As Texas Panhandle wildfires rage, what we know so far

At least one person has died in the Smokehouse Creek fire, as firefighters struggle to contain the blaze.

Aerial view of wildfires in Texas US
An aerial view of wildfires in Texas [Patrick Ryan/Reuters]

The Texas Panhandle region of the state’s 26 northernmost counties is being ravaged by a series of what may soon become the state’s worst wildfires in recorded history. Here’s what we know so far about the wildfires, which have also spread to parts of Oklahoma, and are destroying homes and forcing residents to evacuate.

When did the fires start and how have they spread?

Multiple wildfires started on Monday afternoon and spread on Tuesday, raging through the Texas Panhandle region amid unusually warm, dry and windy weather. Despite the efforts of firefighters to contain them, the wildfires persisted and expanded on Wednesday.

The worst among them is the Smokehouse Creek fire, which started on Monday at 20:20 GMT. Within 28 hours it had spread across 250,000 acres (101,171 hectares).

So far, it has consumed more than 850,000 acres (344,000 hectares) of land. Observers noted that this is more than twice the size of London which is 159,000 hectares. This is more land than all of the state’s 2023 fires combined, and it is closing in on the largest fire on record in Texas: the East Amarillo Complex fire, which burned 907,245 acres (367,149 hectares) in 2006.

According to local media reports, homes on the outskirts of Canadian, Texas, were also burned by the Smokehouse Creek fire.

On Tuesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties. He directed the Texas Division of Emergency Management to dispatch more than 95 firefighters and deployed personnel to close roads, control traffic, offer medical aid and provide livestock support.

Where are the wildfires?

  • The Smokehouse Creek fire started on Monday in Hutchinson County in the Texas Panhandle region. On Tuesday, the fire crossed into Oklahoma and on Wednesday, Amarillo, Texas.
  • Texas and Oklahoma were at the epicentre of some of the most dangerous conditions. The Texas A&M Forest Service said only about three percent of the flames had been contained.
  • The next largest was the Windy Deuce fire, which, as of Wednesday night, had raged across 142,000 acres (57,465 hectares) and was 30 percent contained.
  • Windy Deuce crept to within a few miles of the US Energy Department’s Pantex Plant, the nation’s primary nuclear weapons assembly facility, located near Amarillo, prompting officials to evacuate non-essential personnel and suspend operations.
  • The Grape Vine Creek fire spread across 30,000 acres (12,140 hectares) southeast of Pampa and was 60 percent contained.
  • The Magenta fire was burning in Oldham County, and it is estimated to have burned 2,500 acres (1,011 hectares), while 65 percent was contained.
  • The 687 Reamer fire burned in Hutchinson County, affecting 2,000 acres (809 hectares) and 10 percent of it has been contained.


What happened at the nuclear weapon facility near Amarillo?

The Pantex Plant, northeast of Amarillo, evacuated non-essential staff and said operations had “paused until further notice” on Tuesday night when the fire came within a few miles. Pantex added that “all weapons and special materials are safe and unaffected”.

By Wednesday the plant had returned to normal operations. “There is no imminent wildfire threat to the plant at this time,” Pantex officials said.

Pantex is one of six production facilities in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Nuclear Security Enterprise. The plant has been the main US site for assembling and disassembling atomic bombs since 1975. It produced its last new bomb in 1991 and has dismantled thousands of weapons retired from military stockpiles.

Have there been any casualties?

At least one person, an 83-year-old woman in Hutchinson County, was reported by local media to have died as a consequence of the Smokehouse Creek fire.

She was identified by family members as Joyce Blankenship, a former substitute teacher.

Her grandson, Lee Quesada, said he had posted in a community forum asking if anyone could try and locate her. Quesada said deputies told his uncle on Wednesday that they had found Blankenship’s remains in her burned home.

Quesada said she had surprise him at times with funny little stories “about her more ornery days”.

“Just talking to her was a joy,” he said, adding that “Joy” was a nickname of hers.

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

What has caused these wildfires?

On Monday, unusually high temperatures were recorded reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 Celsius) in Killeen, 93F (33C) in Dallas, and 82F in Amarillo (27C) – more than 20F higher than usual for February.

This unprecedented heat is believed to have caused moisture to evaporate, depleting vegetation of humidity and making fuels susceptible to burn, according to local experts.

As hot and dry winds swept in from the west, and Amarillo experienced gusts as strong as 62mph (100km/h) during the fires, the relative humidity plummeted to as low as 15 to 20 percent.

Lower temperatures and a dip in wind speeds on Wednesday helped to slow the spread of the fires. Rain showers were forecast for Thursday which could help curb the fires further. However, higher temperatures and strong winds are expected to return at the weekend.

What damage have the fires caused?

More than 13,000 Texas homes and businesses were without power as of Wednesday morning, including more than 4,000 of those in the Panhandle region alone, according to data from PowerOutage.

Hemphill County Judge Lisa Johnson said: “Homes have burned in almost every direction.”

Meanwhile, farmland has been severely affected, with hundreds of dead cattle, a county official told the agricultural news publication, Farm Progress.

“We’ve lost a lot of acres, a lot of cattle, and a lot of homes. So far, we have not heard of any human deaths. But property loss, including cattle, is massive,” Hemphill County agent Andy Holloway said. “I know one rancher near (the city of) Canadian who lost 280 mama cows,” he added.

What happens next?

On Saturday, the Storm Prediction Center could declare an elevated risk of fire for the area if conditions remain poor with strong wind and dry air.

According to forecasts, temperatures are expected to rise significantly after Saturday, with many parts of Texas expecting temperatures in the 80s Fahrenheit (26C), while winds may pick up to 45mph (72km/h).

Wildfire grows into one of largest in Texas history
A burned car rests near the shell of a home outside Canadian, Texas [Sean Murphy/AP]
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies