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

Trees stand burned from the Smokehouse Creek fire on Sunday, March. 3, 2024, in Hemphill Co.
Burned trees dot the landscape in Hemphill County on Sunday, March 3. The area was scorched by the Smokehouse Creek fire, the largest wildfire in Texas history. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

Smokehouse Creek Fire 44% contained; elevated fire conditions expected Wednesday afternoon

March 6, 2024 at 11:37 a.m.

Firefighters in the Texas Panhandle on Wednesday are still trying to keep the largest wildfire in state history from spreading beyond the nearly 1.1 million acres it has already incinerated as weather officials warned of dry, windy conditions in the afternoon.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire in Hutchinson County was 44% contained — meaning that percentage of the area touched by the fire has been secured from further spread — as of Wednesday morning, according to the Texas Forest Service.

The fire was among several still burning in the Panhandle. The Windy Deuce Fire in nearby Moore County had burned 144,206 acres and was 81% contained as of Wednesday morning, according to the Forest Service. East, the Grape Vine Creek fire has burned 34,882 acres and was 77% contained.

“Yesterday we had another good day on the fire line. We took advantage of the [moderate] weather conditions to continue our mop-up efforts, ensuring that we extinguish all the heat along the perimeter of the fire line as well as the interior pockets,” said Mike Brod, chief of a section of the team managing the fire response. “That work went really well.”

Authorities have confirmed two people died in connection to the wildfires that have also upended the lives of many other Texans. The inferno has killed thousands of livestock, charred crops and burned many homes. And the threat of more fires continues.

Meteorologists with the National Weather Service in Amarillo said humidity is expected to drop in the Panhandle and winds will reach speeds between 10 and 20 miles per hour.

“These conditions will lead to [elevated] fire weather conditions this afternoon through early evening hours,” Meteorologists wrote in a Wednesday morning update. “Elevated fire weather conditions return on Thursday afternoon with similar conditions to today but winds will be a bit stronger in the 15 to 25 mph range.”

However, Brod, the fire official, said the weather forecast predicted moisture for the region toward the end of the week, which he said will be “a great help” for firefighting efforts.

Alejandro Serrano

Volunteer fire chief who helped fight wildfires dies

March 6, 2024 at 6:41 p.m.

The volunteer fire chief in the town of Fritch died Tuesday while fighting a structure fire that did not appear related to the wildfires, according to Hutchinson County officials.

NBC News reported that Zeb Smith entered the building to check on people inside but never came out. Smith died from his injuries, according to a Facebook post from the Hutchinson County's Office of Emergency Management.

"Chief Smith, a dedicated public servant, was the first on the scene, demonstrating his unwavering commitment and service to the Fritch community," the post said.

Hutchinson County OEM spokesperson Brandon Strope said the fire was not related to the wildfires ravaging the region, according to NBC News. However, Strope told the news outlet, Smith was one of the many volunteer firefighters in the region who had helped combat the spread of the wildfires in the last several days.

Gov. Greg Abbott honored Smith during a press conference Tuesday.

"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,” he said. “That is what Texas heroism is all about.”

Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera

Panhandle ranchers and farmers seek aid to rebuild

March 5, 2024 at 9:22 p.m.

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Farmers and ranchers in the Panhandle lost livestock, buildings and infrastructure in the wildfires still raging through the region. Now they’re looking to rebuild.

More than 100 people packed a room at the Hemphill County Exhibition Center on Tuesday afternoon looking for answers about what government assistance they can tap to help them recover from staggering financial losses caused by the fires. The economic toll from the wildfires, which include the largest in the state’s history, hasn’t been officially tallied. But Panhandle ranchers have likely lost thousands of cattle in the wildfires, according to some preliminary estimates, and hundreds of thousands of acres have burned.

“We’re going to make it through these times: We’ve made it through them in the past and we’re going to make it through now,” Andy Holloway, a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent based in Hemphill County, told a standing-room-only crowd.

The wildfires in the Panhandle have wrought havoc on the ecosystem farmers and ranchers need to make a living. They not only lost livestock in the inferno but the hay and grass to feed them, the buildings that house them and the fences that pen them in.

Tatum Swenhaugen, who raises show pigs with her husband on land south of Canadian, said flames killed 40 of her pigs — about half of her stock, a loss of about $70,000.

The fire also burned down every building on the property used to house and breed the pigs, Swenhaugen said. Those buildings need to be rebuilt soon so they can breed enough pigs to sell during their busy season in the fall, she said.

“That's our main income: when we get to sell those babies in the fall,” Swenhaugen said. “So we've got to have our barns ready to go pretty quick.”

Joshua Fechter and Neelam Bohra

Canadian residents return home to begin assessing the damage

March 4, 2024 at 5:00 a.m.

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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

March 4, 2024 at 5:00 a.m.

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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

March 4, 2024 at 5:00 a.m.

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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

March 4, 2024 at 5:00 a.m.

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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

Record winter heat, dry air helped drive Panhandle fire risk

March 4, 2024 at 5:00 a.m.

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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

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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.

Correction, March 6, 2024 at 6:51 p.m. : This story has been updated to clarify that Fritch volunteer fire chief Zeb Smith’s death Tuesday was not related to the Panhandle wildfires. He died while responding to an unrelated structure fire, Hutchinson County officials said.