Texas Smokehouse Creek Fire grows to largest in state's history: Updates

Wildfires continued to roar across the Texas panhandle Thursday, forcing widespread evacuations and causing two deaths as the Smokehouse Creek Fire became the largest in the state's history.

As of Thursday morning, 130 fires were burning across the state, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. The largest of the blazes, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, had consumed 1 million acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, and was just 3% contained by Thursday.

The Smokehouse blaze caused a brief shutdown of a nuclear plant earlier in the week. The 687 Reamer Fire fed into it after consuming an additional 2,000 acres of land.

“This is now the largest fire in recorded Texas history,” Erin O’Connor, lead public information officer for Texas A&M Forest Service, said Thursday. The fire's acreage indicates land within the burn zone, she said.

On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties in Texas, and on Wednesday, he directed the Texas Division of Emergency Management to increase its readiness level in response to the fires.

Multiple blazes continued to rage Thursday across Texas and past state lines into Oklahoma. The Windy Deuce fire had burned at least 142,000 acres and was 50% contained, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. The Grape Vine Creek Fire was almost two-thirds contained after it tore through 30,000 acres, and the Magenta Fire had burned through an additional 3,300 acres.

Officials have confirmed two deaths in the Texas fires this week. Cindy Owen was driving in Hemphill County on Tuesday afternoon when she encountered fire or smoke, said Sgt. Chris Ray of the Texas Department of Public Safety. She got out of her truck, and flames overtook her.

A passerby found Owen and called first responders, who took her to a burn unit in Oklahoma. She died Thursday morning, Ray said.

The other victim, an 83-year-old woman, was identified by family members as Joyce Blankenship, a former substitute teacher. Her grandson, Lee Quesada, said deputies told his uncle Wednesday they had found Blankenship’s remains in her burned home.

The number of structures that have been damaged or destroyed isn’t yet known though teams are investigating, O'Connor said.

President Joe Biden, in Texas on Thursday to visit the U.S.-Mexico border, said he directed federal officials to do “everything possible” to assist fire-affected communities, including sending firefighters and equipment. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has guaranteed Texas and Oklahoma will be reimbursed for their emergency costs, the president said.

“When disasters strike, there’s no red states or blue states where I come from,” Biden said. “Just communities and families looking for help. So we’re standing with everyone affected by these wildfires and we’re going to continue to help you respond and recover.”

Reduced winds and future rain could help slow the fires

On Thursday, fire activity was minimal, in part because the winds had died down, O'Connor said, although they may pick up this weekend. Some precipitation is forecast this week, which could slow the fire, she said. "Our firefighters should be able to make good progress and increase containment over the next couple of days."

The weather service reported 1 to 4 inches of snow in parts of the Panhandle on Thursday, but reports of moisture in the area over the fire ranged from a trace to maybe a quarter of an inch, said Douglas Weber, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Amarillo.

It remains to be seen how much that will help before the very warm, dry and windy conditions return on Friday. The weather service also issued fire weather watches for the weekend in parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas due to high winds and low humidity.

Dangerous conditions could return this weekend, AccuWeather Chief Meteorologist Jon Porter said, as gusty winds, low humidity and high temperatures are forecast in the Southern Plains.

“Firefighters are going to welcome all of that help from the atmosphere today, with the higher levels of moisture and reduced winds as compared to earlier in the week. That period of help is very brief,” Porter said. “Grass and brush can dry up very quickly, that’s why we’re so concerned about the risks for fires to increase once again.”

According to a report last year by the Texas State Climatologist, wildfire risk in the state is projected to increase because of increased rates of drying and increased fuel load: Intense rains create the conditions for larger than usual scrub grass and brush growth, then droughts dry the area out, which makes the land more liable to burn.

In the Texas Panhandle, where the Smokehouse Creek Fire and others are burning, the land is flat, grassy and brush-filled, giving any fires that do start ample fuel to burn.

The largest wildfire in Texas history blazed across at least 850,000 acres on Wednesday.
The largest wildfire in Texas history blazed across at least 850,000 acres on Wednesday.

Nearby counties evacuate after heat fuels fires

Local officials ordered the evacuation of Hemphill County on Tuesday afternoon in response to the fire. Less than an hour later, the sheriff's office announced that a major highway evacuation route was closed and advised that residents shelter in place in the town of Canadian.

The Texas A&M Forest Service said a "moderate to high fire potential for wildfires" detected on Tuesday would relax later in the week but would increase on the state's plains amid strong winds forecast over the weekend.

Strong winds in a dry environment, fueled by record-high temperatures for the time of year, allowed the fire to rapidly spread after it sparked on Monday. Temperatures early in the week in the northern part of the state reached as high as the mid-80s, abnormal for this time of year. Then came extremely high winds.

The weather service forecast on Monday noted gusts up to 60 mph. “As if that wasn't enough, we've also had record warm temperatures this morning and afternoon, with the opportunity to break another warm temperature record overnight," the weather service said.

Also on Tuesday, the fires closed the Pantex nuclear plant northeast of Amarillo, causing officials at the plant to halt operations that evening. The plant resumed normal operations on Wednesday.

How unusual is a Texas wildfire in February?

Large fires in the Texas Panhandle are not unusual, O’Connor said. “It’s not unheard of to have these large fires in this part of the state,” she said.

Fire activity typically shows up during two annual seasons, but climate change has broken up that cycle as more fires pop up throughout the year, according to the Western Fire Chiefs Association.

The winter fire season, sometimes called the dormant fire season, runs from February through April and sees the most fires spread out of the year. Those fires can blossom as cold fronts bring high winds into the state putting winter-dry grasses and vegetation at risk.

The summer wildfire season runs August through October, when high heat and dry conditions can spark conflagrations. These fires are especially bad in years with wet falls and winters followed by summer droughts, which create large amounts of fuel.

That was the case of the Bastrop Fire in 2011, the most destructive in the Lone Star state’s history. It killed two people, burned more than 32,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,500 homes.

Before the Smokehouse Creek Fire took the title, the largest fire in Texas state history was the East Amarillo Complex fire. The fire ignited in Hutchinson County on March 12, 2006, and blazed through more than 907,000 acres, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

It also caused 13 fatalities, making it the deadliest in the state's history.

Historically, slightly more than 1% of the state’s land has burned each decade since 1984. Climate models project an increase as soil and vegetation become drier by 2100.

Conditions were ripe for Smokehouse Creek fire to spread

The Smokehouse Creek fire had all the ingredients to become a megablaze from the very beginning.

Three things make for very large fires: fine fuels, such as the tall grass growing in the area where this fire started, wind to drive the flames and open terrain with nothing to stop the fire, said Stephen Pyne, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University and a wildfire historian.

All three of those were at work in the Smokehouse fire, Pyne said: flat terrain, strong gusty winds and grasslands. It had also been dry and hot, which helped dry out the grasses and other “fuels” and made it easier for them to burn.

That’s how the fire was able to travel more than 30 miles in a day and grow to 1 million acres in size in a little more than 48 hours.

“It’s a big fire and it’s going to do damage until the wind stops,” he said. “There’s nothing really they’ll be able to do to control it.”

Small town hit by fire remembers destruction of 2014 wildfire

The small town of Fritch hunkered down as wildfires approached this week, nearly a decade after another wildfire unleashed destruction on the small community.

As the Windy Deuce fire crept closer, officials ordered evacuations in the southern part of the town. The Moore County Sheriff's Office said it was assisting residents to evacuate.

Fritch Mayor Tom Ray said around 50 homes had already been destroyed in the blaze.

"Today your Fritch Volunteer Fire Department mourns for our community and those around it," fire officials posted on Facebook. "We are tired, we are devastated but we will not falter. We will not quit."

The fire wrought destruction on the city's infrastructure, causing hundreds to lose power this week.

The power outages also brought down the city's water system. Officials announced a boil water notice on Wednesday morning until further notice. The city set up a local church as a bottled water distribution center in response.

The tragedy recalled May of 2014, when another wildfire that scorched the North Texas area devastated Fritch. The flames forced more than 2,000 people to evacuate and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes. One person in the town died of a heart attack amid the disaster.

The fire ignited in the midst of a years long drought throughout the state that began in 2010 and took a heavy toll on Texas' agriculture-dependent economy. It also devastated small communities throughout the Panhandle and scorched thousands of acres.

"We have seen tragedy today and we have seen miracles," local deputies posted on Facebook on Tuesday. "Today was a historic event we hope never happens again. The panhandle needs prayers."

How much is climate change driving big wildfires? 

Climate change’s strongest impact on wildfires occurs in moisture-limited environments that are heavily forested and heavily vegetated.

That’s not the case in the Texas wildfires, UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain said. Yet it’s likely climate change is still playing a role, he said Thursday in a live-streamed video on his Weather West YouTube channel.

Though it’s not uncommon to see wildfires in the Southern Plains in winter because of the dry grasslands and wind storms, what is unusual is just how hot temperatures got in the region in the days leading up to the fires, Swain said. Some parts of the plains – including in the Texas panhandle – saw record warm temperatures for February.

On Monday, Childress, Texas, hit 90 degrees, beating the record high for that date set in 1986 of 86 degrees. Lubbock saw a high of 87, beating a record for the day set in 1918 of 85 degrees. The area was also record hot in December and January, which would have dried out vegetation even more, making it more susceptible to a fire like this.

“Why was it as hot as it was leading up to these fires? It certainly wouldn’t have been that hot without climate change,” Swain said.

Contributing: Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas wildfire: Panhandle fire becomes largest in state's history