Firefighters rush to subdue deadly Panhandle wildfire before dangerous conditions return Saturday

Firefighters rush to subdue deadly Panhandle wildfire before dangerous conditions return Saturday
2 months 3 weeks 4 days ago Thursday, February 29 2024 Feb 29, 2024 February 29, 2024 8:32 PM February 29, 2024 in News - Texas news
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
A satellite view of the aftermath of the Smokehouse Creek wildfire in Fritch on Feb. 28. Credit: Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS

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FRITCH — A blanket of snow and rain that descended over the Texas Panhandle on Thursday helped firefighters to slow the spread of the largest wildfire in the state’s history, which has engulfed more than 1 million acres of land and killed at least two people.

But firefighters are racing against the clock to temper down the flames before the weekend, when weather forecasters predict another round of gusty winds and low humidity could again create dangerous fire conditions for the sprawling region in the top corner of Texas. Friday is expected to be warm and dry.

[Texas wildfires: how to help and how to stay safe]

The National Weather Service in Amarillo has issued a fire weather watch for Saturday afternoon through Sunday evening, leaving firefighters desperate to rein in the massive blaze before windy conditions return to the region. Forecasters said Friday that critical conditions may not develop until midday Saturday and are likely Sunday morning. The snow and rain were insufficient to allow for any vegetation to start growing again, so the potential for fire to ignite the area remains.

“We are concerned if we don’t secure everything in the next 48 hours, there is potential it will spread again,” said Adam Turner, public information officer with Texas A&M Forest Service, on Thursday. He said crews are trying to put out as much of the fire now so more areas are secure before winds pick back up.

Gov. Greg Abbott told reporters at the governor's mansion Friday morning that he is heading up to the Panhandle imminently to get an update on firefighting and assess what resources local governments need to continue their firefighting response, maintain public safety and provide supplies to victims who have lost homes. He said his office has been in close contact with the Texas Division of Emergency Management and local county judges.

"We will be going through an analysis when I arrive out there today about what each county and each community needs are to begin the rebuilding process, which includes the disaster declarations I've already made, as well as others that could be forthcoming," he said.

Abbott added that there are enough state resources available to respond to the crisis and he does not anticipate removing resources from the border.

The Smokehouse Creek fire alone, which broke out Monday afternoon about 65 miles north of Amarillo, surpassed the million acreage mark and spreads across Texas and Oklahoma. It is larger than the East Amarillo Complex fire in 2006, which blazed through 906,000 acres of land and used to hold the record for the state's largest wildfire.

The Smokehouse Creek fire was followed by a second one to the west called the Windy Deuce fire, which burned 142,000 acres of land across multiple counties north of Amarillo.

Screenshot of a map of the fires raging in the Texas Panhandle taken at 9:54 a.m. on Friday, March 1, 2024.
Screenshot of a map of the fires raging in the Texas Panhandle taken at 9:54 a.m. on Friday, March 1, 2024. Credit: Texas A&M Forest Service

Firefighters have only managed to contain the Smokehouse Creek fire by 15% as of Friday morning, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service, which is the state agency tasked with responding to wildfires. The Forest Service said on X, formerly Twitter, that crews will focus on the northern edge of the fire and areas around structures. The Windy Deuce Fire in Moore County remains at 55% contained as of Friday morning. Texas A&M Forest Service officials said Thursday they had turned over management of the two wildfires to a federal incident management team because of their massive size.

The cause of the fires is unknown at this time and still under investigation, according to Karen Stafford, Texas A&M Forest Service fire prevention program coordinator.

The fires have ravaged nearly 2,000 square miles. The winds initially pushed fires to the east, but a cold front abruptly shifted the winds to blow the whole fire line to the south, which made the situation more dangerous.

Two other fires in the region continue to burn but are now largely contained. A third, smaller fire in Hutchinson County was about 10% contained as of Thursday evening. Another nearby smaller blaze was 100% contained, according to the Forest Service. Wildfires have become more frequent and severe in the Western United States because of warmer and drier conditions, factors that are worsening because of climate change.

[Texans in the Panhandle recall towering smoke and darkened skies as wildfires crept near their towns]

At least two people have died, Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Chris Ray said Thursday.

One of the victims was a female truck driver from Amarillo who was driving on a narrow farm road in Hemphill County on Tuesday afternoon. The woman, identified as 44-year-old Cindy Owen, got out of her truck, which was surrounded by fire, and was burned, Ray said. Emergency medical services transferred Owen to Oklahoma to receive care but she died Wednesday morning.

CNN identified the other victim as 83-year-old Joyce Blankenship of Hutchinson County. A city official in Borger confirmed the suspected fatality to be Blankenship pending official confirmation by the county.

Four firefighters were also injured with burns on Monday while fighting the Grape Vine Creek fire in Gray County. They were taken to a hospital and released the following day, Ray said.

Jacob Clifton, who serves as the volunteer fire chief in Skellytown, said around 55 firefighters from the state, county and city spent the past few days battling the fires that spread just north of his tiny town about an hour outside Amarillo.

The fire was moving so quickly at first that firefighters had to pivot to alert the community and evacuate residents, he said.

“It was moving as fast as you could navigate the ground,” Clifton said. “It’s very hard to use traditional tactics.”

His fleet sustained thousands of dollars in damages as his team clamored to fight the fires. Carson County officials said Thursday afternoon that they are still assessing the total damage.

Abbott on Wednesday issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties in the area, directing the Texas Division of Emergency Management to deploy more resources and firefighters to contain the blaze. Medical personnel are also on the ground to support firefighters and other emergency responders.

More than 400 personnel, including 78 people from out of state, have been deployed to contain the fires, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. Texas Department of Public Safety officers have also been sent to patrol affected areas and protect property from looting.

Hot, dry and windy conditions primed the Texas Panhandle for the fires to take hold and spread, said Ben Kirtman, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies at the University of Miami. And hot and dry conditions have generally increased because of climate change.

"Thinking in terms of the context of climate change, what we've seen happening over the last decade or so, there's certainly an increase [in] fires," Kirtman said. "There's no question about it.”

Compelling evidence suggests that the risk of extreme fires will continue to increase, and no evidence suggests it will decrease, Kirtman said. That means people should be prepared for fires and heed emergency warnings.

The cooling temperatures on Thursday made it easier for firefighters to prevent the fire from intensifying and spreading, said Samuel Scoleri, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Amarillo. Some of the heaviest bands of precipitation moved over the Smokehouse Creek fire but it wasn't immediately clear how much fell in the area. Snowfall can help dampen fires and raise the relative humidity to make it easier for firefighters to get a blaze under control.

However, meteorologists expect weather conditions to worsen again on Saturday and Sunday, with winds picking back up to support the spread of fires.

"The question is how much of the fire gets contained before Saturday," Scoleri said. Because we are expecting another round of critical fire weather."

In the cities of Canadian, Fritch and Glazier, officials on Tuesday ordered nearly 5,000 residents to evacuate or shelter in place. By Wednesday, Hemphill County officials lifted the evacuation order and said city services would resume that day. Evacuation orders were also lifted in Skellytown.

Local officials in Hemphill County were still assessing the extent of the damage late Wednesday. Canadian — a city of 2,300 in Hemphill County — shouldered the brunt of the catastrophe. The fires destroyed approximately 40 homes, according to early estimates by Hemphill County Emergency Management coordinator Bill Kendall.

“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.”

Local officials are working to clear up roadblocks and set up donation centers, according to the Canadian Record, which has provided periodic updates on social media.

Ranchers from Midland brought in several trucks full of hay for the surviving livestock in the area.

“We delivered hay to someone last night, he had nothing left,” said Casey Smith, a rancher. “He didn’t have a blade of grass left.”

In the city of Fritch, fresh snow lay on the ground but didn't cover the damage caused by the fires. Smoke blended in with the overcast sky, and charred plants, trees and pastures could be seen along the roads.

Officials are still assessing the damage in the city but said some structures have been lost in the fire. They are hoping to take advantage of the snow, in hopes it can control the spread before dry, windy conditions return this weekend.

According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the wildfires have burned over 98% of the Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area, an area of over 5,000 acres located along the Canadian River in the Northern Rolling Plains of Hemphill County. The department said some fence lines may have been damaged but won't know the extent of the damage until after the fire is put out.

Gene Howe is known for being home to plants like sand sagebrush and eastern cottonwood as well as numerous wildlife species including the bobwhite quail, Rio Grande turkey, lesser prairie-chicken, white-tailed deer and Texas horned lizard. TPWD said wildlife are often resilient and capable of self-preservation, escaping fires or seeking refuge during wildfires. TPWD also said staff are assisting local law enforcement with road closures, evacuations and door-to-door knocking.

With Texas Independence Day celebrations approaching on March 2, Texans are advised to exercise extreme care, particularly with activities like fireworks, which can inadvertently spark wildfires. The Texas A&M Forest Service recommends Texans check if there are active burn bans and fireworks restrictions with their local government officials.

Clifton, the volunteer fire chief, said the fire came within 20 yards of the city, but there was no damage within city limits.

But he said he’s preparing, physically and emotionally, for the possibility that windy conditions expected this weekend could worsen conditions again.

Jayme Lozano Carver, Alejandra Martinez, Emily Foxhall and Renzo Downey contributed to this story.

Disclosure: Texas Parks And Wildlife Department has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Correction, : An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of National Weather Service meteorologist Samuel Scoleri. The story has been updated with the correct spelling.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/29/texas-panhandle-wildfire/.

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