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Texas Panhandle fire expands to 1 million acres, becoming state’s largest ever

Texas Panhandle fire expands to 1 million acres, becoming state’s largest ever
epa11187470 A handout photo made available by the Flower Mound Fire Department shows firefighters with the Flower Mound Fire Department out of Flower Mound, Texas, helping to contain a wildfire in the panhandle region of Texas, USA, 27 February 2024 (issued 28 February 2024). The fire is affecting 500,000 acres of land and is the second largest fire in Texas history. EPA-EFE/FLOWER MOUND TEXAS FIRE DEPARTMENT HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

CANADIAN, Texas, Feb 29 (Reuters) - Fire crews on Thursday fought to contain a deadly wildfire that has burned more than 1 million acres (404,686 hectares) of grasslands, timber and residential areas in Texas' northern Panhandle region, making it the largest recorded fire in the state's history.

By Nathan Frandino, Rich McKay and Brendan O’Brien

The blaze, dubbed the Smokehouse Creek Fire, had doubled in size since Wednesday and was 3% contained on Thursday morning, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. Firefighters used a brief lull in the strong winds that have swept the area to erect barriers and tackle hot spots of downed trees and thick grass.

On Thursday, Jason Wilhelm, 36, was using a frontloader to clear the lot in Canadian, a small town about 100 miles (161 km) northeast of Amarillo, where the house he shared with his wife and five children had stood a few days earlier. Charred grass and blackened trees were all that remained.

His wife was able to gather pictures, cash and some sentimental items from the home before the blaze roared through on Monday. “It was heartbreaking,” Wilhelm said.

Rain and snow falling in the area on Thursday offered a “shot of moisture” before the air dries out on Friday and high winds return over the weekend, said Steve Hannah, an Amarillo-based meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Gusts could reach 40 miles per hour by Sunday, he said.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire has now burned through an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

The number of structures destroyed and people evacuated is still unclear, but dozens of homes have been reportedly leveled. The fire has so far killed one person, according to Texas A&M. The victim was described by local media as an 83-year-old woman in Hutchinson County, northeast of Amarillo.

Lee Haygood, 57, the owner of a ranch about 25 miles southeast of Canadian who managed to save all his cattle, was counting his blessings on Thursday but also wondering how he would feed them.

“We didn’t lose any cattle, but we lost 75% of our grassland,” he said. “It’ll take a full growing season to come back, not until maybe the fall.”

In contrast with ranchers north of Canadian, Haygood on Monday was given only a few hours warning about the approaching wildfire. He moved his herd of 200 Hereford bulls off the four square miles of grazing land and penned them into the single green wheat field he had left, hoping it would not ignite.

Fellow ranchers have already started sending semi-tractor trailers full of hay and meal to his ranch. “We are truly blessed,” he said.

Several smaller wildfires were burning in other parts of the Panhandle region. The next largest fire in the area, the Windy Deuce fire, has burned 142,000 acres and was 30% contained on Thursday, according to Texas A&M.

On Tuesday, the Windy Deuce had crept to within a few miles of the U.S. Energy Department’s Pantex plant, the nation’s primary nuclear weapons assembly facility, located near Amarillo, prompting officials to evacuate non-essential personnel and suspend operations.

But the leading edge of that blaze shifted to the north and west, away from Pantex, on Wednesday, allowing routine activities at the plant to resume.

“Operations at the Pantex Plant returned to normal Wednesday,” the facility said in an online notice. “There is no imminent wildfire threat to the plant at this time.”

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