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Live updates: A record-setting wildfire is burning through the Panhandle

Published February 28, 2024 at 3:53 PM CST
Flower Mound firefighters stand under a yellow haze of smoke near the wildfire.
Flower Mound Fire Department

The Smokehouse Creek Fire in Hutchinson County has nearly doubled in size since Wednesday morning.

A second person has died in the Smokehouse Creek Fire

Posted March 1, 2024 at 11:07 AM CST

The Texas Panhandle fire has claimed another fatality. Cindy Owen, 44, from Amarillo, died in the Smokehouse Creek Fire while she was making deliveries, ABC reported.

Earlier this week, the fire claimed an 83-year-old woman from Stinnett, in Hutchinson County, NBC reported. Joyce Blankenship, a former substitute teacher, was in her home, according to family members.

High temperatures and windy conditions expected in the Panhandle this weekend

Posted March 1, 2024 at 11:06 AM CST

High winds and drier weather will return to the Texas Panhandle Friday area after cooler temperatures and wetter conditions provided some help to firefighters fighting the blazes.

“Thankfully, the snow that did come through actually did help a lot. It did put a damper on these fires,” said Samuel Scoleri, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Amarillo. “Unfortunately, today we are already starting to dry out. We're going from highs of 40 yesterday to now a high in the mid to upper 70s today with chances of being in the 80s by Sunday.”

Wind speeds will also increase this weekend as “critical fire weather conditions are expected to return Saturday” according to the NWS website. Gusts could be as high as 40 miles per hour Saturday, and increase to 50 mph Sunday.

Grass conditions will also be “very dry” through the weekend.

Scoleri said the agency will likely issue red flag warnings to the public to remind residents about the risks of doing anything that could create sparks or other fire hazards.

“That's actually what the main messaging we've been trying to get across to the public around here is: be very cautious,” he said. “Something as simple is just even throwing your cigarette butt out the window can easily start another wildfire.”

Pres. Biden vows to send more aid to the Panhandle

Posted February 29, 2024 at 4:27 PM CST

President Biden said the federal government will send more aid to Texas as the state battles the record-setting wildfires.

Biden was in Brownsville Thursday to meet with U.S. Border Patrol agents and other federal and local officials but also addressed the White House’s efforts to help Texas and Oklahoma as the fires continue.

“We've already had more than 500 federal personnel here working on fire suppression. That includes the deployment of 100 federal firefighters and more on the way, as well as dozens of additional fire engines, air tankers, small planes, helicopters, telephones, planes,” he said.

Biden urged residents in the communities affected by the wildfires to heed warnings from local officials and praised the efforts of first responders.

“We're grateful for the brave first responders risking their lives to save others. And we urge folks to listen to the warnings local officials listen,” he said.

Biden also used the wildfires to warn of the growing dangers associated with climate change and slammed its critics.

“The idea there's no such thing is climate change: I love that, man. I love some of my Neanderthal friends who still think there's no climate change,” he said. “Well, my administration is going to keep building on the progress we've made fighting climate crisis. And we're going to keep helping folks rebuild themselves in the wake of these disasters.”

Precipitation improved conditions in the Panhandle Thursday, but weather experts warn of windy, dry weather ahead

Posted February 29, 2024 at 3:45 PM CST

State officials are still holding out hope that cooler, wet weather will assist firefighters in their containment efforts and prevent the blaze in the Panhandle from spreading farther.

The most recent update puts the fire at 1,075,000 acres, 25,000 of which are in Oklahoma, Juan Rodriguez, the public information officer for the Texas A&M Forest Service, told The Texas Newsroom. The fire is 3% contained.

“Based on the weather and the work that the crews are doing, we're expecting that containment to go up at some point, most likely today," he said.

Rodriguez said officials will get a better gauge of what needs to be done to contain the fire when the weather lets up.

“Once this weather goes away and it dries up, then we'll reassess and look at what all is still burning and where those points of concerns are," he said. “So crews are operating in mop up and patrol right now, while engine crews [and] equipment crews are still working on getting containment lines put in.”

Rodriguez said the containment zones are areas where crews are removing grass, brush and other foliage that could catch fire and spread the blaze.

“Once it burns up to that dirt, it'll have no more fuel to consume and it will eventually burn itself out,” he said.

Low temperatures and significant precipitation across the Panhandle, from Amarillo to Lubbock, kept fire conditions limited Thursday. Parts of the Amarillo area saw around 3 inches of snow before clouds moved northeast and turned to rain over the Panhandle.

While the day of relief is welcome, Adam Przepiora with the National Weather Service say dangerous fire conditions will return quickly on Friday and over the weekend.

“Especially Sunday is when we're going to see the strongest winds here with the warmer temperatures," Przepiora said. "So that's going to bring potentially elevated fire conditions to our region.”

Gov. Greg Abbott to visit the Panhandle on Friday

Posted February 29, 2024 at 2:44 PM CST

Gov. Greg Abbott will visit the Panhandle Friday to get an on-the-ground assessment of the damage.

The governor will be in Borger, in Hutchinson County, and will hold a news conference with Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd and other officials, according to his office.

The briefing will begin at 12:30 p.m. at the Dome Civic and Convention Center.

Panhandle ranchers may need hay, fencing supplies and other donations to cope with fire losses

Posted February 29, 2024 at 2:42 PM CST

The extent of the damage the Texas wildfires will have on the state’s agriculture industry won’t be fully known for several days, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller told The Texas Newsroom Thursday. But he anticipates the loss could be colossal.

“We can't even get in there to where they are. I'll probably be a week or longer before we have good solid numbers,” Miller said. “Probably tens of thousands of cattle lost, that’ll be just personal estimate. We know that over 50 structures [have been lost]. Hundreds and hundreds of miles of fencing is going to have to be replaced.”

Miller said that most of the structures destroyed so far are houses and barns.

Andy Holloway, the Hemphill County agent for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, told the Texas Standard Thursday that 10,000 cattle may have perished in Hemphill County alone.

Miller added that some of the surviving livestock will need to be euthanized. The state’s livestock industry is the largest in the nation and home to about 13 million cattle and calves, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Miller also stressed the resources that the department is providing and encouraged people affected by the wildfires to visit the department website and social media accounts for more information.

“We will have updates on drop off points, both in the Panhandle and across Texas [for] that want to donate hay or fencing supplies. We'll have a list there of things that are needed,” he said.

That includes information about the Texas Star fund, which provides money from a pool of donations to farmers whose losses might not be completely covered by insurance.

“We want to help them get back on their feet,” Miller said.

The commissioner also touted the state’s AgriStress helpline, 833-897-2474, which provides counseling services for farmers, ranchers and other agriculture workers.

“It's staffed by agriculture people. They understand agriculture. They know what resources that are available,” he said. “These people have 300 hours of training in agricultural mental health. We can, you know, help them with their mental health needs, but we can also let them know resources like the USDA disaster loans and emergency loans."

'It just overwhelmed me': Some 10,000 cattle are estimated to have died in the fire in Hemphill County

Posted February 29, 2024 at 12:49 PM CST
Thousands of cattle are thought to have died in the Smokehouse Creek fire in the Panhandle.
Rachel Osier-Lindley
Thousands of cattle are thought to have died in the Smokehouse Creek fire in the Panhandle.

The Smokehouse Creek fire in the Texas Panhandle, which has now consumed more than 1 million acres over several counties, is in a largely rural area. Flames have consumed homes, barns and livestock, and have also scorched large swaths of pasture.

Andy Holloway, the Hemphill County agent for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, estimated that between 80 and 85 percent of the county has been affected by the Smokehouse Creek fire.

“It is a terrible situation here,” Holloway told the Texas Standard. “Most of our ranches have been affected by this fire deeply, if not totally.”

The fire has been reduced to small hot spots around Canadian, the county seat. People have been able to return to their homes and take stock of damage. Holloway has spent the last few days checking in with farmers and ranchers across the county.

“When I drove out into the first pasture and saw hundreds of dead cattle yesterday, lying in this pasture, it just overwhelmed me. That’s the effect it’s having on these ranchers,” Holloway said.

It will take several days to account for all the damage caused by the fire. Holloway thinks that up to 10,000 cattle in Hemphill County may have died in the blaze.

Resilience, faith and basketball: Canadian Wildcats lose their playoff game but maintain hope for their community

Posted February 29, 2024 at 12:21 PM CST
Canadian Wildcat parents and players said the playoff game on Wednesday, Feb. 28, gave them a needed distraction from the wildfires that have consumed more than a million acres near the Panhandle community.
Rachel Osier-Lindley
Canadian Wildcat parents and players said the playoff game on Wednesday, Feb. 28, gave them a needed distraction from the wildfires that have consumed more than a million acres near the Panhandle community.

The high school basketball game Wednesday in Amarillo would have been important even before a record-setting blaze wreaked havoc on parts of the Texas Panhandle.

It was, after all, a playoff game for the Canadian Wildcats.

But the natural disaster that’s so far destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of Texas grassland added a new element to the contest: solidarity.

“My son's a sophomore. He's number 21,” Tatum Pennington, a rancher in the town of Canadian in Hemphill County, told The Texas Newsroom. “And so, as much of a challenge it was to come play tonight, I told him that he needed to come represent our community and our resilience and our strength. He loves the game of basketball, and he loves Canadians.”

Pennington and her husband have lived in the town all their lives and said the game was a welcome, albeit temporary, reprieve from sifting through the chaos the wildfires have brought and worrying about the 300 head of cattle they own.

“[It’s been] catastrophic destruction. We still can't find most of our cattle. And the ones that we found are barely hanging in. They're very badly burned,” she said. “The babies don't know where their moms are, and the moms don't know where their babies are. And it's just, the ranch has been completely destroyed.”

Pennington said the plan moving forward was to take things “step by step.”

“Our first priority is the animals that have survived. We're trying to get them water and hay and what they need to keep surviving, and then figure out what we're going to do with them,” she said.

Melissa Koehl lives north of Canadian. Her family has had better luck.

The blaze got near her home but spared it the destruction it brought on others.
“It came near our house. Actually, it touched our house, but our house is still standing,” she said. “It burnt everything around it.”

Like the Penningtons, she was at the game to temporarily escape the destruction, though she is still anguished about her neighbors and friends.

“We’re a strong community. [But] dear friends of ours have lost everything. I mean, from what they have on - that's all they got out with. So just pray for us,” she said.

The Wildcats lost the game, but not their spirit, said Canadian resident Mandy Wall.

“We did lose. Which … it just adds to all of the emotions that have happened the past couple of days,” she said, fighting back tears. “But our boys were strong, and they wanted to come play, and they're like, we better go play this for our town. And so I'm glad they did.”

Three prisons in the vicinity of the fires prepared to evacuate if necessary

Posted February 29, 2024 at 12:10 PM CST

Set between the hundreds of thousands of acres of scorched earth in the Panhandle are three prisons.

Clements Unit sits just north of Amarillo and less than thirty miles south of the Windy Deuce fire. Baten and Jordan units are just northwest of the small city of Pampa, sandwiched between the Smokehouse Creek fire to the north and the Grapevine Creek Fire to the south. The three prisons combined can accommodate about 4,000 prisoners. A voluntary evacuation was announced for Pampa Tuesday, but then quickly rescinded when winds died down. The National Weather Service says that should last for a couple of days, but winds could pick back up.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice says it has buses and personnel ready if the prisons need to be evacuated.

A person has died in the Smokehouse Creek Fire, now the largest wildfire in state history

Posted February 29, 2024 at 9:33 AM CST

The Smokehouse Creek fire in the Texas Panhandle is now the largest fire in the state’s history. As of Thursday morning the fire had grown to 1,075,000 acres and was only 3% contained, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

The blaze also claimed its first fatality, an 83-year-old woman from Stinnett, in Hutchinson County, NBC reported. The woman, Joyce Blankenship, a former substitute teacher, and was in her home, according to family members.

Some rain and light snowfall are in the forecast for fire-affected areas

Posted February 28, 2024 at 4:18 PM CST

Christian Rangel, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Amarillo, told The Texas Newsroom that firefighters have a small window late Wednesday and Thursday to contain portions of the blazes as higher humidity and wet weather make their way into the area.

But, he warned, that won’t last too long.

“We’ve recovered with our relative humidity and winds have died down as well alongside these cooler temperatures,” he said. “But to speak to potential conditions later in the week, toward the weekend Saturday and Sunday, we might see fire weather conditions return.”

The immediate forecast includes some rain and the possibility of light snowfall on Thursday.

“This is definitely the window of time to do it. And this will be the easiest time that they’ll have for that,” Rangel said. “Ideally that precipitation should also help the firefighters reach containment. It’ll be gone by the end of Thursday; it moves out pretty quick and it won’t be a substantial amount.”

Texas issues a disaster declaration and resources in response to wildfires

Posted February 28, 2024 at 4:01 PM CST

The outbreak of wildfires in the Panhandle prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to issue a disaster declaration Wednesday for 60 counties in the area. The state has also activated the Texas Department of Emergency Management to initiate increased firefighting response resources.

Abbott’s office announced the state was deploying additional resources to aid in the local response, including six air tankers that deploy water or fire-retardant materials to affected areas, search-and-rescue teams, additional fire engines and ambulances, veterinary support and animal supply points to provide shelter, food, water and medical care for livestock.

The Texas A&M Forest Service will also supply additional strike teams comprised of nearly 100 personnel and over 30 fire engines, Abbott said.

Abbott’s office added that the Biden administration also approved Texas’ request for a Fire Management Assistance Grant that will make the state eligible for a 75% reimbursement to cover costs associated with battling the Smokehouse Creek Fire and Windy Deuce Fire, which have consumed about 850,000 and 90,000 acres, respectively.