Texas Panhandle wildfires: What you need to know about the blazes, damage and recovery

By Texas Tribune Staff, The Texas Tribune

Texas Panhandle wildfires: What you need to know about the blazes, damage and recovery” 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.

Fritch fire chief dies as firefighters work to stop blaze

The largest wildfire in Texas history has burned nearly 1.1 million acres in the Panhandle, killing thousands of livestock, incinerating crops and destroying hundreds of structures along its path. Authorities have confirmed at least two people died, including Fritch volunteer fire chief Zeb Smith, who had a heart attack while fighting a structure fire Tuesday morning.

“It is always a tragedy to lose any life. But to see that one of our chiefs, a first responder working to battle back against flames and losing his life in the line of duty, is something that we never want to see,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press conference Tuesday. “That is what Texas heroism is all about.”

Firefighters are focusing their efforts on holding the line of the record-setting Smokehouse Creek fire in Hutchinson County.

As of Tuesday morning, firefighters had contained 37% of the fire — meaning they had secured that percentage of the area affected by the blaze to prevent further spread, according to Texas Forest Service officials. They also said firefighters have been able to more accurately map the fire and slightly reduced the total acreage still on fire by about 10,000 acres to just under 1.06 million acres.

The blaze was among six burning in the Panhandle as of Tuesday. In Sanford, the Roughneck fire forced the evacuation of the town, population 132, after starting on Sunday. According to the Forest Service incident website, that fire grew to 355 acres, but firefighters had contained 80% of it by Tuesday morning.

A new fire called the Gray fire also popped up outside the town of Groom, just south of the Grapevine Fire in Gray County, according to the Texas Forest Service. While that fire hasn’t been contained, it is much smaller than the others, covering an area of about 30 acres. Personnel have been dispatched to fight the blaze.

Fires have burned around 70% of Hemphill County and displaced 47 families, Abbott said. He said a local hospital had to move 66 people to the town of Pampa, and then move them again. The governor emphasized the need for donations, especially hay to feed cattle, fencing materials and cattle cubes. He said the state hopes to apply for additional federal funding to help with the recovery. In a press release, Abbott called on people affected by the fires to complete a voluntary survey that the governor’s office said will help understand the extent of the damages.

Abbott said weather changes throughout the week could pose a threat to the community and recommended everyone “maintain vigilance to make sure that nobody else loses their life.” Abbott on Monday said that the risk of new wildfires will remain in the Panhandle and South Texas “until spring green-up occurs in the abundance of grass vegetation found in these regions.”

National Weather Service meteorologists in Amarillo said neither elevated nor critical fire weather conditions were expected in the region Tuesday. Meteorologists said Tuesday morning parts of the Panhandle might see rain and snow later in the week.

In its most recent update, Forest Service officials said Monday that firefighting conditions had strengthened since Sunday due to improved weather conditions brought by an arriving cold front in the region. Officials encouraged people to consult local sheriff’s office’s websites for the most current information about roads.

Kate McGee, Neelam Bohra and Alejandro Serrano

Canadian residents return home to begin assessing the damage

Get the data and visuals that accompany this story →

CANADIAN — The process of rebuilding in the aftermath of massive and devastating wildfires has slowly begun in this Panhandle town, even as fires still rage elsewhere.

As the Smokehouse Creek fire engulfed much of the region last week, residents here were told to evacuate or shelter in place. This week, the town’s residents and leaders have begun to return and calculate the damage while attempting to recover shreds of normalcy.

Officials have yet to release an official count of homes lost to the blazes, but Hemphill County Judge Lisa Johnson estimates that number to be 50, roughly 100 displaced, in a county of less than 3,000. Earlier that week, local officials weren’t sure Canadians would survive at all.

The city’s scars are on the border, where the fires claimed brick homes and trailer camps. On the horizon, a veil of smoke still dulled the blue sky Sunday. The quiet has been replaced by helicopters flying over the fields inspecting the fire. Furious gusts of wind carry a mixture of dust and ash. Even as residents reach for normalcy, the surroundings remind them of the phenomenon that ravaged their city.

“I remember just being afraid that this entire city would burn, and I had no idea how many residents were still here,” said Johnson.

Carlos Nogueras Ramos

Groups taking donations, organizing volunteers for recovery efforts

Get the data and visuals that accompany this story →

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.

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.

But as fires still burn, officials are urging caution. 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.

María Méndez and Maria Probert Hermosillo

Cause of largest wildfire still under investigation

Get the data and visuals that accompany this story →

As fire officials look into the causes of the Panhandle wildfires, 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% 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.

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

Madaleine Rubin, Jayme Lozano Carver and Emily Foxhall

Wildfires threaten Texas’ agriculture economy

Get the data and visuals that accompany this story →

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

Record winter heat, dry air helped drive Panhandle fire risk

Get the data and visuals that accompany this story →

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

Get the data and visuals that accompany this story →

Disclosure: Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University have been financial supporters 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/2024/03/04/texas-panhandle-wildfires-updates-damage-recovery/.

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

More about: