Massive Smokehouse Creek fire becomes largest in Texas history

More than 430,000 hectares have burned in northern Texas, and the flames have forced the evacuation of a dozen towns

Texas disaster declaration
A drone view of the grasslands burning from the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Roberts County, Texas, U.S., February 28, 2024.Nathan Frandino (Reuters)

Fires are ravaging large areas of the Texas Panhandle, in the northern part of the state. In addition to forestland, the flames have consumed homes, devoured cars, burned ranches and killed cattle, and have already caused at least one fatality, an 83-year-old woman from the small town of Stinnett. Evacuations of the affected areas have prevented further deaths. A series of fires broke out on Monday and have been spreading, driven by strong winds, burning over 1 million acres (a little over 435,000 hectares), according to an update released Thursday by the Texas A&M Forest Service. It is the largest fire in the history of Texas, and its severity has led state authorities to issue a disaster declaration for 60 counties and request federal aid.

The affected area is larger than the state of Rhode Island and the Smokehouse Creek fire, the main blaze, is the biggest ever recorded in Texas after the East Amarillo Complex fire of March 2006, which scorched 907,000 acres and left 13 people dead. Some satellite images suggest it may already have surpassed it. Although there is only one confirmed fatality so far, authorities fear more may appear.

Most of the most severe fires in Texas occur in the months of January through May. Dry grasslands after the winter and strong winds create a high-risk situation. This year, unusually high temperatures have added to the danger.

U.S. President Joe Biden has been receiving information about the blaze, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday. “We are grateful for the brave firefighters and first responders who are working to protect people and save lives. And we urge everyone in the affected area to remain vigilant and heed the warnings of local officials, especially those who have been ordered to evacuate,” she told a press briefing.

The federal administration is providing assistance to state authorities in both Texas and Oklahoma, which has also been affected by the fire. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has directed the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) to deploy additional emergency response resources “to ensure the safety of Texans and impacted communities,” he said in a statement. “I encourage Texans in affected areas to heed the guidance of local officials and first responders and to take all necessary precautions to keep your family and loved ones safe.” Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties.

Wind and dry grasses have contributed to the spread of the fire, which is leaving charred landscape in its wake. Temperatures are expected to drop Thursday and there may be some rainfall, but by the weekend warmer and drier — and therefore more dangerous — weather is forecast, not only in North Texas but also in other areas of the state.

The advance of the flames led the main facility that dismantles the U.S. nuclear arsenal — the Pantex plant, southeast of Amarillo — to halt its operations on Tuesday night, but by Wednesday it was functioning normally. The plant, one of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s facilities, has been the main site for assembling and disassembling atomic bombs since 1975. It produced its last new bomb in 1991 and has decommissioned thousands of weapons removed from military stockpiles.

The remains of a burned house in Canadian, Texas, February 28.
The remains of a burned house in Canadian, Texas, February 28. Sean Murphy (AP)


Elsewhere, residents were evacuated from areas ravaged by the flames. “There was one point where we couldn’t see anything,” said Greg Downey, 57, describing the scenes as the fire reached his neighborhood. “I didn’t think we’d get out of it,” he added, according to testimony collected by AP.

Hemphill County emergency management coordinator Bill Kendall described the scorched terrain as “a moonscape… It’s just all gone.” Kendall said about 40 homes were burned around the perimeter of the town of Canadian, but no buildings were lost inside the community. Kendall also said he saw “hundreds of cattle just dead, laying in the fields.”

Tresea Rankin videotaped her own home in Canadian as it burned. “Thirty-eight years of memories, that’s what you were thinking,” Rankin said of watching the flames destroy her house. “Two of my kids were married there... But you know, it’s OK, the memories won’t go away.”

The small town of Fritch, north of Amarillo, lost hundreds of homes in a 2014 fire and appeared to be hit hard again. Mayor Tom Ray said Wednesday that an estimated 40-50 homes were destroyed on the southern edge. Ray said natural gas remained shut off for the town of 2,200. Residents are probably not “prepared for what they’re going to see if they pull into town,” Hutchinson County Emergency Management spokesperson Deidra Thomas said in a social media livestream. She compared the damage to a tornado.

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