Texas wildfire grows into one of largest in US state's history

A cluster of wildfires has scorched the Texas Panhandle, including a blaze that grew into one of the largest in state history, as flames moved with alarming speed and blackened the landscape across a vast stretch of small towns and cattle ranches.

Authorities warned on Wednesday that the damage to communities on the high plains could be extensive.

The largest fire — which expanded to more than 3,367 square kilometres — jumped into parts of neighbouring Oklahoma and was only about three percent contained, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

The largest fire recorded in state history was the East Amarillo Complex fire in 2006, which burned over 3,600 square kilometres and resulted in 13 deaths.

Authorities had not reported any deaths or injuries as of Wednesday morning while huge plumes of smoke billowed hundreds of feet in the air.

But officials warned residents of potentially large property losses.

"There was one point where we couldn't see anything," said Greg Downey, 30, describing his escape from the flames as flames bore down on his neighbourhood.

"I didn't think we'd get out of it." "When we came out, the sky had gone black."

Hemphill County Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Kendall described the charred terrain as being "like a moonscape. ... It's just all gone."

Kendall said about 40 homes were burned around the perimetre of the town of Canada, but no buildings were lost inside the community.

Disaster declaration

Authorities have not said what ignited the fires, but strong winds, dry grass and unseasonably warm temperatures fed the blazes.

Near Borger, a community of about 13,000 people, emergency officials at one point late Tuesday answered questions from panicked residents on Facebook and told them to get ready to leave if they had not already.

Republican Governor Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties. The encroaching flames caused the main facility that disassembles America's nuclear arsenal to pause operations Tuesday night, but it was open for normal work on Wednesday.

The blazes tore through sparsely populated counties on the vast, high plains that are punctuated by cattle ranches and oil rigs.

The main fire, known as the Smoke House Creek Fire, had grown to more than half the size of the state of Rhode Island. It is five times larger than on Monday when it began.

The weather forecast provided some hope for firefighters — cooler temperatures, less wind and possibly rain on Thursday.

But for now, the situation was dire in some areas.

Sustained winds of up to 72 kph, with gusts of up to 113 kph, caused the fires that were spreading east to turn south, threatening new areas, forecasters said.

But winds calmed down after a cold front came through Tuesday evening, said Peter Vanden Bosch, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Amarillo.

As the evacuation orders mounted on Tuesday, county and city officials implored residents to turn on emergency alert services on their cell phones and be ready to evacuate immediately.

The Pantex plant, northeast of Amarillo, evacuated nonessential staff on Tuesday night out of an "abundance of caution," said Laef Pendergraft, a spokesperson for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s production office at Pantex.

Firefighters remained in case of an emergency. The plant has long been the main US site for both assembling and disassembling atomic bombs. It completed its last new bomb in 1991 and has dismantled thousands since.


As the fires raged on Tuesday, evacuations were ordered in several towns in a swath northeast of Amarillo.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire spread from Texas into neighbouring Roger Mills County in western Oklahoma, where officials encouraged people in the Durham area to flee.

Officials did not know yet how large the fire was in Oklahoma.

An unrelated fire in Ellis County, Oklahoma, on the Oklahoma-Texas state line, led Tuesday to the evacuations of the towns of Shattuck and Gage.

The evacuation order was lifted hours later, according to county Emergency Management Director Riley Latta.

The fire had unknown origins and burned an estimated 121 square kilometres, according to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.

The weather service issued red-flag warnings and fire-danger alerts for several other states through the midsection of the country, as winds of over 64 kph combined with warm temperatures, low humidity, and dry winter vegetation make conditions ripe for wildfires.

In central Nebraska, a mower sparked a prairie fire that burned a huge swath of grassland roughly the size of the state's largest city of Omaha, state officials said Tuesday.


Source: TRT