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Texas Panhandle wildfires have burned nearly 1.3 million acres in a week – and it's not over yet

New fire sparks in Texas Panhandle
New fire sparks in Texas Panhandle as wildfires burn more than 1 million acres 04:22

The Texas Panhandle wildfires killed at least two people and burned nearly 1.3 million acres in their first week — and the situation isn't over. 

There are five active wildfires across the region, according to Texas A&M Forest Service. The largest of those is the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Hutchinson County, which alone has burned nearly 1.1 million acres and is the largest wildfire ever recorded in the state. That fire was just 15% contained as of Sunday afternoon. 

The other fires include Gray County's Grape Vine Creek Fire, which has burned nearly 35,000 acres and is 60% contained, Moore County's Windy Deuce Fire, which has burned 144,206 acres and is at 55% containment, and Oldham County's Magenta Fire, which burned nearly 3,300 acres and is 85% contained. Hutchinson County is also facing the new Roughneck Fire, which has reached an estimated 300 acres and is 25% contained. 

Largest Wildfire In Texas History Sweeps Across Panhandle
Aurora Champion does her part as her parents help a friend whose home was destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek fire on March 3, 2024 in Stinnett, Texas.  Scott Olson / Getty Images

Weather conditions across the state have made battling the blazes difficult. For days, the area has seen favorable fire weather – warmer temperatures, dry air and strong winds – but the National Weather Service said Monday morning a cold front is set to pass through, bringing cooler temperatures that will help minimize wildfire impact. 

"Even though there is no precipitation in the forecast, winds and relative humidity values will thankfully not hit any fire weather thresholds early this week," the Amarillo station said. "... Weak winds at the surface and a lot are looking likely for Tuesday so fire weather should not be a concern. Along with the weak winds, temperatures will also be cooler in the mid 50s to mid 60s area wide." 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday the fires have left exceptional damage, saying much of the affected areas are "completely gone" with "nothing left but ashes on the ground." 

Early assessments show that up to 500 structures have been destroyed as of Friday afternoon, he said, adding that they will not know the true extent until later. 

"We have people who don't have a home, don't have a place to go to. ... And we as Texans need to collaborate together, to work not just on the restoration process, but that restoration process takes a while," he said. "We need to work on the process of finding immediate and temporary housing for these individual people."

Texas's Largest Fire Keeps Burning And Only Partially Under Control
A destroyed ranch home following the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Miami, Texas, on Sunday, March 3, 2024.  Jordan Vonderhaar/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In an update Monday, Abbott said "the safety and well-being of impacted Texans is our No. 1 priority as the potential for more dangerous wildfires persists in the coming days." 

Farmers and ranchers have also suffered major losses. Officials said the fires have left "dead animals everywhere," with estimates that thousands of cattle – a vital industry in the region – will have died by the end of the disaster. Many in the agricultural community have rushed to help, offering land and free medication and labor to try and save animals.  

"We're picking up deads today," Chance Bowers, one ranch operator, told the Associated Press last week as he revealed the more than a thousand cattle on the land. "... This pasture we're standing in, there as 93 cows in it and there is six left." 

By the time they finish looking at the damage, Bowers said he expects they will have lost about 200 to 250 cows, right in the middle of calving season. 

"I've spent the last 15 years building this cow herd up," he said. "And you can lose it overnight." 

Abbott said he is going to request a federal disaster declaration to help in the recovery. More than 50 Texas National Guard personnel and hundreds more personnel from various state emergency response resources have been deployed to combat the wildfires. 

On Thursday, President Biden said he had directed his team to "do everything possible to help protect the people and the communities threatened by these fires." More than 100 federal firefighters were headed to the state, he said, as well as "dozens of additional fire engines, air tankers, small planes, helicopters to help fight the flames." 

He also linked the fires to climate change, saying his administration will keep working to "help folks rebuild themselves in the wake of these disasters." 

The conditions that are favorable to fire weather are only expected to become more intense as the world continues to burn fossil fuels, a process that releases gases into the atmosphere that work to trap heat from the sun, warming the planet. Researchers have already found that Texas' fire season has already grown by two months, and the season is only expected to undergo "lengthening and intensifying" as temperatures rise and extreme weather conditions such as drought and strong winds worsen. 

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