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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Texas has never seen a fire this big. Here is what we know.

Justin Homan, left, and Tate Rosenbusch assess damage from the Smokehouse Creek fire on Homan’s ranch in Pampa, Texas on Friday, March 1, 2024. Fires burning across the plains of Texas, Kansas and Nebraska have hit ranchers hard. Dry, windy weather threatens to make the fires worse. (Desiree Rios/The New York Times)

By Jacey Fortin, J. David Goodman and Anna Betts

The Smokehouse Creek fire, the largest on record in Texas, is still largely uncontrolled across the state’s Panhandle.

So far, the fire — one of several that have affected that area — has scorched more than 1 million acres, making it one of the most destructive in U.S. history. The blaze has devastated cattle ranches, consumed homes and killed at least two people.

After a brief reprieve thanks to some precipitation Friday, temperatures rose again, to above-average levels, over the weekend. The high temperatures paired with strong winds continue to challenge efforts to extinguish the fires.

Here is what we know so far.

When did it begin?

The blaze was ignited Feb. 26, and it’s not yet clear what started it.

It spread around the town of Canadian, a cattle-country community of about 2,200 people northeast of Amarillo, near the Oklahoma state line. By Wednesday, the fire had spread across vast swaths of ranch lands in the Panhandle. By Thursday, it had become the largest on record in the state.

In order to grow so quickly, a few weather conditions had to align: high temperatures, dry conditions and strong winds.

Where has the fire been spreading?

The Smokehouse Creek fire has been burning across a sparsely populated area of Texas that is home to most of the state’s cattle: millions of cows, calves, steers and bulls. Its sprawling ranches are not always easily traversable by road.

Wildfires are nothing new for Panhandle ranchers, many of whom know how to transform their pickups into makeshift firetrucks in order to fight a blaze. But the scale of this fire is without precedent in Texas.

In addition to the ranchers, residents of the small communities that dot the landscape, including Fritch and Canadian, have seen their homes, cars and churches reduced to rubble.

Two deaths have been connected to the fire. Joyce Blankenship, an 83-year-old woman living on the outskirts of the town of Stinnett, perished in her home when flames overtook her property last Tuesday. Cindy Owen, 44, died from burns after flames surrounded her company truck Tuesday as she drove home to Amarillo from Oklahoma. She later died at a hospital.

On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott said that early assessments suggested that about 400-500 structures in the region had been destroyed by the fire, and he cautioned that the number could rise as surveys continued. Officials also said that several firefighters and other emergency workers had been injured.

Is the blaze being contained?

The Smokehouse Creek fire was 15% contained as of Sunday afternoon, authorities said.

The rugged terrain of the Canadian River Valley, where the fire started, has been a major obstacle for firefighters because firetrucks cannot navigate some of the cliffs, valleys and steep hills in the area.

Some rain Thursday helped to stall the fire’s growth. But warm, windy and dry weather returned over the weekend, which could prolong the blaze.

The National Weather Service warned of “critical fire weather conditions” in the region Saturday — Texas Independence Day — and Sunday, urging residents to avoid outdoor activities that might cause sparks or flames.

Fire risk remains critical in the Texas Panhandle. On Sunday morning, a fire weather watch said the elevated risk of fire had been expanded through states such as Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. In Kansas, the State Forest Service is already fighting a grass fire near Topeka.

And on Sunday night in the Texas Panhandle, authorities ordered residents to evacuate Sanford, a small town roughly 7 miles northeast of Fritch.

What about the cattle?

The Panhandle is home to about 85% of the roughly 12 million cattle in Texas, said state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. But most of them are kept concentrated in feedlots and dairy farms, and those operations have been largely unaffected by the fires.

Still, wide swaths of the grassland that Texas cattle rely on for food have been reduced to a blackened expanse. Thousands of cattle may have already died or been so injured in the blazes that they would have to be killed, Miller said.

Even those ranchers whose cattle have survived were left scrambling for a place for their herds to eat. Scorched grazing lands means their surviving cows may starve if left alone. Miller said a rancher he knew had 1,500 head of steer but “no grass and no water” and was in a desperate situation, adding that the rancher may have to move the cattle across state lines.

The fire and smoke could also cause health problems down the road or lead pregnant cows to give birth prematurely.

For many ranchers, the tasks ahead feel gargantuan: Bury dead cattle, mend broken fences, distribute bales of hay trucked in from hundreds of miles away.

Starting over will not be easy, ranchers say, as cattle prices have shot up amid dry conditions in recent years and interest rates remain high, making loans less appealing, especially as many ranchers are facing a stack of bills this time of year as they prepare for spring.

Is this fire unusual?

In most of Texas, wildfires happen in the summer. But in the Panhandle, the fire risk is highest around March when temperatures rise, strong winds blow over the flat landscape and dry grass can easily catch fire.

Climate change is most likely making fire season start earlier and last longer by increasing the number of days in a year with hot and dry weather conditions that enable wildfires, said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist and a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University.

Temperatures in Texas have risen by 0.61 degrees per decade since 1975, according to a 2021 report by the state climatologist’s office. The relative humidity in the Panhandle region has been decreasing as well.

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