Texas Panhandle wildfires: Officials say favorable weather helps, but there’s still concern for this weekend

By Kate McGee and Texas Tribune Staff, The Texas Tribune

Texas Panhandle wildfires: Officials say favorable weather helps, but there’s still concern for this weekend” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The largest wildfire in Texas history has burned more than 1 million acres in the Panhandle and continues raging Friday. At least two people have died. It’s also killed thousands of livestock, destroyed crops and gutted infrastructure

The Smokehouse Creek fire is the largest of multiple wildfires burning in the region. Dry and windy weather this weekend could fuel the infernos and make it more difficult for firefighters to battle the blazes. Officials in some areas are only now beginning to assess the damage. Gov. Greg Abbott has issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties and traveled to the region Friday.

Law firms lining up, pointing at downed power line

As fire officials work on reports about the Panhandle wildfire causes, lawyers of landowners are zeroing in on a downed Xcel Energy Co. power line located ​​outside Stinnett.

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission Wednesday, Xcel Energy revealed it had received a letter from attorneys asking the company to preserve a fallen utility pole near where the Smokehouse Creek Fire may have started. The filing does not name the law firm but said it represented “various property insurance interests.”

In the SEC filing, Xcel Energy said that “investigations into origin, cause, and damage of the wildland fires burning in or near the service territory of SPS, including the Smokehouse Creek Fire, are underway.” The company also said it is working with emergency responders to provide assistance to those impacted by the fires.

Homeowner Melanie McQuiddy filed a lawsuit on Friday in Hemphill County against Xcel Energy claiming that one of the company’s splintered power poles started a fire there when it fell.

On Saturday, multimillionaire trader Salem Abraham told The Texas Tribune of his plans to file suit this month against Xcel and Osmose Utility Services over the pole for damages to his ranch and his brothers’ land.

Abraham is the owner of the 3,500 acre Mendota Ranch near Canadian, which was burned in the wildfires. Around 95 percent of the fences and pastures on Abraham’s land — which stretches along five miles of the Canadian River — were burned in the fire, along with wildlife and thousands of trees.

Once filed this month, it will be the fifth lawsuit related to wildfire damages Abraham has filed in the past 30 years — and the third one involving electrical lines, he said. He sued Xcel in 1996 after a wildfire destroyed land on his ranch.

“I’m sick and tired of it,” Abraham said. “This is not my first or second or third or fourth or fifth fire rodeo, and it’s not my first one with these utilities [companies].”

Abraham’s lawyer Kevin Isern, of the Amarillo law firm Lovell, Isern & Farabough told the Tribune the firm is finalizing a suit against against Minneapolis-based electric utility Xcel Energy, which generates, sells and delivers power in the Texas Panhandle and Osmose Utility Services, a Georgia-based company that Isern said inspects Xcel Energy equipment in Texas. Isern said Abraham’s suit will center on what they believe was Xcel Energy’s failure to to comply with the National Electrical Code, which sets U.S. standards for safe installation of electrical wiring.

Xcel did not immediately return the Tribune’s request for further comment.

Investigators sent by the law firm located the pole on Monday, Isern said. They believe it was pushed over by strong winds, and started the wildfire when it fell and its electrical wiring came into contact with dry grass.

Isern’s firm sent Xcel Energy a preservation letter that the company accepted on Friday. Multiple other firms also sent Xcel preservation letters, Isern said.

Xcel Energy’s subsidiary Southwestern Public Service Company serves the area where the fire is burning, according to the SEC filing. The location is outside of the jurisdiction of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the power grid that provides electricity for most of the state.

Abraham said his brothers – Eddie and Jason Abraham – own over 25,000 acres of Texas ranchland and will likely join his lawsuit. The fire burned their pastures and killed much of their livestock.

Downed power lines have caused other massive fire outbreaks, including the Dixie Fire and Kincade Fire that sparked in California from Pacific Gas And Electric power lines.

Lovell, Isern & Farabough has represented clients impacted by several past wildfires in the Panhandle, including the Borger Wildfire, which killed 12 people in 2006.

Madaleine Rubin

What fire “containment” really means

Firefighters are working to contain the Smokehouse Creek and Windy Deuce fires, which are the biggest fires threatening the Texas Panhandle. They are 15% and 60% contained, respectively. However, officials say the public can misunderstand what fire “containment” means.

Meghan Mahurin, public information officer for the Texas A&M Forest Service, said containment does not equal how much of the fire is out. Instead, containment represents how much of a perimeter firefighters have secured around the fire, which would ideally stop it from spreading.

Officials are advising residents and motorists traveling through the Texas Panhandle to be cautious, as the smallest action could potentially aggravate the fire weather conditions this weekend.

“A lot of our fires start from the roadside,” Mahurin said. “Dragging chains, throwing cigarettes, and pulling trucks off into a bar ditch where a hot exhaust can hit tall grass can cause one.”

This past week’s snow and moisture did help, Mahurin said, but firefighters are monitoring the area for hotspots that could spark again when winds pick up.

Juan Rodriguez, the Texas A&M Forest Service’s incident commander for the Smokehouse Creek fire, said they do use air support to release water or flame retardant chemicals on fires from above. However, air support can be dangerous if the winds are too strong.

“It makes it extremely dangerous to fly for the pilots,” Rodriguez said. “Along with that, if the wind is blowing as extreme as it was, it will pick up all the water or retardant and float it through the air.”

On Saturday, the Forest Service deployed multi-engine airtankers called “super scoopers” to the Windy Deuce fire, which spans Moore, Potter and Carson counties. The service shared a video showing the aircrafts gliding on Lake Meredith to fill up the tanks. According to the U.S. Forest Service, these super scoopers can hold up to 1,600 gallons of water and take seconds to fill.

During a press conference Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott said state officials are working on a way to bring in stronger air resources that can withstand windy conditions in the Panhandle.

Jayme Lozano Carver

Identities of two killed in wildfires released

Two women are confirmed dead as Texas’ largest-ever wildfire continues to burn, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

DPS Sgt. Chris Ray confirmed that Cindy Owen, 44, died Thursday morning in a burn unit in Oklahoma City after getting caught in the flames two days before. Owen was driving home from work in her truck on Tuesday in Hemphill County when she encountered the fire, possibly panicked and exited her vehicle, Ray said.

The fire overtook Owen before a passerby found her and contacted the police. She was transported to a burn center, where she died two days later.

Stinnett resident Joyce Blankenship was also killed in her home when it caught fire, Ray said.

The 83-year-old former substitute teacher was found on Wednesday, according to CNN .

The Texas A&M Forest Service said Friday that the size of Texas’ five active fires have held steady since Friday night. The Smokehouse Creek Fire in Hutchinson County remains the largest in the state, covering over 1 million acres of land. Firefighters have contained 15% of the fire.

Ahead of a cold front on Monday, the Fire Service anticipates warmer, drier weather and strong winds throughout the weekend — conditions that increase the likelihood of new fires. Officials are urging impacted communities in the Panhandle to stay vigilant and watch for evacuation orders.

Madaleine Rubin

No fire growth on Friday due to favorable conditions

As of Friday evening, the state’s largest wildfire has burned nearly 1.1 million acres since it started on Monday. In the last 24 hours, firefighters working in the Panhandle increased containment of the devastating Smokehouse Creek fire, which currently stands at 15%.

Texas A&M Forest Service reported earlier today that Thursday’s conditions were favorable to containing the fire and there was no growth in the blaze. The increase in burned acreage was due to more accurate mapping of the burn zone.

Officials reported that over the weekend, the primary effort of crews will be to hold the northern perimeter of the fire in the hope of preventing southwest winds from causing more growth in the northeast region of the burn zone.

The second largest active fire in Texas is located to the west. The Windy Deuce fire burned 142,000 acres as of Friday evening, but crews achieved a 60% containment level. Evacuation orders for the area, near the town of Fritch, were reduced to voluntary with checkpoints on Thursday.

The weekend is predicted to bring dangerous fire conditions for Texas’s top corner, with gusty winds and low humidity forecasted. Officials warned that it is going to be an active weekend and asked residents to avoid activities that could potentially start other fires, which would divert resources away from the active wildfires.

— William Melhado

Abbott describes “utter devastation” in Texas Panhandle

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, center, speaks at a press conference with Nim Kidd chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, left, and Hutchinson County Judge Cindy Irwin, right, Friday, March. 1, 2024, in Borger, Texas.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, center, speaks at a press conference with Nim Kidd chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, left, and Hutchinson County Judge Cindy Irwin, right, Friday, March. 1, 2024, in Borger, TX. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

In his first update from the Texas Panhandle since the region was engulfed in flames earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott described a scene of total destruction throughout multiple counties.

“When you look at damages that have occurred here, it’s just gone, completely gone, nothing left but ashes on the ground,” Abbott said. “Those who are affected by this have gone through utter devastation.”

Abbott said that according to a premature assessment of the region, 400 to 500 structures have been destroyed. Officials said 90% of Roberts County, about 80 miles north of Amarillo, is burned. Lisa Johnson, county judge in neighboring Hemphill County, said at least 109 structures are burned in that county, but there are no active fires in the county as of Friday afternoon.

Abbott confirmed one death from the wildfires, crediting firefighters’ response for preventing more deaths. Officials said five firefighters were injured on the first night with burns and other injuries.

He said 14 state agencies and 45 local agencies are on the ground responding to the fires that have covered more than 1 million acres. He also said he plans to make a federal disaster declaration request for additional aid, but that requires county leaders to continue to assess damages to get an accurate estimate of the cost.

Abbott said emergency responders will continue to monitor for potential new fires throughout the weekend, but there is also a need for recovery support, including debris removal and management and help finding immediate temporary housing for those who have lost homes.

— Kate McGee

Panhandle residents urged to “remain vigilant” as windy, fire prone conditions expected this weekend

Gov. Greg Abbott is warning Texas Panhandle residents that they cannot let their guard down as “enormous potential fire dangers” persist into the weekend.

“Winds are going to pick back up, the right elements for a fire will be around,” the governor said after flying to the Panhandle on Friday. “As much as everyone has gone through … all of us must remain vigilant to make sure all steps are taken to continue to prevent loss of life, to contain fires, to minimize encroachment upon homes and cities across the entire region.”

​​As of Friday afternoon, the Texas A&M Forest Service said just 15% of the Smokehouse Fire is contained, but urged people not to look at containment percentages as a sign the fires are over.

“I do not want that to lead you to a false sense of security,” Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, told reporters. “It’s going to be a very active weekend.”

Kidd noted that the perimeter of the Smokehouse Fire equates to around 550 miles. He urged Panhandle residents to avoid activities this weekend that could cause a potential fire.

“Over 90% of wildfires are human caused,” Kidd said. “No new starts. We don’t want to divert resources from our existing fires onto a new start fire.”

Kate McGee

Wildfires threaten Texas’ agriculture economy

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The state’s agriculture has been devastated as this week’s wildfires have already killed thousands of livestock, destroyed crops and gutted infrastructure.

The agriculture industry, a big driver of the state’s economy, was already facing pressures from prolonged and widespread drought that forced ranchers to manage smaller herds, contributing to a decrease in beef production nationally. The ongoing wildfires are another blow as many ranchers tried to rebuild their herds and operations during the cooler months of the year.

Over 85% of the state’s cattle population is located on ranches in the Panhandle, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture. In 2021, agriculture accounted for 9% of Texas’ gross state product, adding $186.1 billion to the state’s economy, according to Texas A&M’s Agrilife Extension report. While numbers on how many cattle were lost in the fires are unknown, experts say ranchers will face significant economic pressure from the damage.

“Even if you were fortunate to be able to get your animals out fast enough, the economic impact on those affected are big,” said David P. Anderson, a professor of agricultural economics and extension livestock economist with Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension.

Alejandra Martinez

Officials mount relief efforts, continue urging preparation and prevention

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Smoke from wildfires alone can pose a serious health threat, especially for kids, older adults and those with chronic heart or lung disease and asthma. To stay safe during a wildfire, it’s recommended to close all vents and protect all of your home’s openings to prevent embers from penetrating your home. Evacuate immediately if authorities tell you to do so and wait for officials to say it’s safe before returning home.

Officials are still assessing the extent of the wildfires’ destruction in the Panhandle and are asking people whose property has been damaged to report it through an online survey to help identify immediate resource needs.

The Texas Panhandle Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) is helping coordinate volunteering in the area through an online interest form and several organizations have set up funds or are taking donations to help affected residents, including farmers and ranchers. See more wildfire safety tips and ways to support local residents here.

María Méndez and Maria Probert Hermosillo

Texans still don’t know the extent of damage

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MIAMI, Texas — It’s been 18 years since Mitchell Locke lived through what had long been the worst wildfire in Texas history. Now, he’s living through an even bigger one.

As the top elected official in Roberts County, Locke is helping navigate the impacts of the Smokehouse Creek Fire, which has already burned 1 million acres in the Texas Panhandle. It set a new record this week for the largest wildfire in state history. About 85% of Roberts County has been affected, but the full extent of damages aren’t known yet.

Locke is among an unknown number of West Texans who witnessed towering smoke and darkened skies as a series of wildfires crept closer to their towns. Locke’s home is still standing, but his family lost part of its ranch. He doesn’t know how many of his cattle died.

“You have to just kind of give up and know you’re going to lose some,” Locke said. “Then pray and cross your fingers that they’ll survive, then check the next day.”

Jayme Lozano Carver and Alejandra Martinez

Record winter heat, dry air helped drive Panhandle fire risk

Smoke hangs in the Canadian River Valley south of Stinnett, Texas after multiple days of wild fires Friday, March. 1, 2024.
Smoke hangs in the Canadian River Valley south of Stinnett, Texas after multiple days of wild fires Friday, March. 1, 2024. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

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It’s not unusual for there to be fire risk in the winter in Texas, when vegetation is dead, dormant or dry. Most of the area that has burned is not in a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. But scientists know that the hot, dry weather that set the stage for the spread of the Panhandle falls in line with the type of weather that climate change is making more likely. Drier and warmer air dry out vegetation that fuels fires. (There isn’t clear scientific consensus yet on how or whether climate change affects wind.)

“If climate change had a role, it was in the fire weather itself, having record-setting temperatures on Monday combined with low humidity and then strong winds on Tuesday and low humidity,” Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said.

Climate change attribution science — or the process of saying to what extent human-caused climate change fueled an extreme weather event — is an evolving field. It typically takes researchers time to parse out how much of the greenhouse gasses pumped into the air as humans burn fossil fuels have contributed to the severity of one storm or another.

But Climate Central has developed a tool for assessing day-by-day how much climate change is affecting temperatures. Their method found that the heat on the day the fires started was at least three times more likely than it would have been if human-caused climate change weren’t occurring.

“If you get more warm, windy weather for a longer period, then there’s a better chance of that lining up with ignitions,” said Dylan Schwilk, an associate professor in the department of biological sciences at Texas Tech University.

Emily Foxhall

Disclosure: Texas Tech University 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/03/01/texas-wildfire-live-updates/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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