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Massive wildfires burning in Texas Panhandle force evacuations, prompt disaster declaration

Smokehouse Creek Fire in Texas Panhandle is now 2nd biggest on record
Smokehouse Creek Fire in Texas Panhandle is now 2nd biggest on record 03:06

NORTH TEXAS - Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration Tuesday due to widespread wildfires in the Panhandle amid hot and dry conditions. Dry vegetation and high winds were fueling the rapid growth of blazes. Abbott's declaration includes 60 counties.

Since Sunday, Feb. 25, Texas A&M Forest Service has responded to 56 wildfires burning more than 1,256,328 acres. 

"As dangerous wildfires continue to impact the Texas Panhandle, I directed TDEM to immediately deploy additional wildfire response resources to ensure the safety of Texans and impacted communities," Abbott said Wednesday.  

Smokehouse Creek fire
The largest wildfire in Texas history is actively burning today. The Smokehouse Creek fire in Hutchinson County is burning a total of 1,075,000 acres across Texas and Oklahoma and is 3% contained. Texas A&M Forest Service

Abbott also directed the Texas Division of Emergency Management to increase the readiness level of the Texas State Emergency Operations Center to Level II, an "Escalated Response," in support of the state's around-the-clock response.  

The Smokehouse Creek Fire is now the largest wildfire in Texas history, burning a total of 1,075,000 acres across Texas and Oklahoma. It is 3% contained.

One person died in hard-hit Hutchinson County where the massive Smokehouse Creek Fire swept through the area. Eighty-three-year-old Joyce Blankenship died when the Smokehouse Creek fire enveloped her neighborhood in the town of Stinnett, northeast of Amarillo.

"We do have one confirmed fatality from the Scotts Acres fire," Hutchinson County Public Engagement Coordinator Deidra Thomas said.

map texas panhandle wildfires
Texas panhandle wildfires map CBS News Texas

Pantex, the main facility that assembles and disassembles America's nuclear arsenal, shut down its operations Tuesday night because of nearby wildfires. But the plant's operators said overnight on X, the former Twitter, that it is "open for normal day shift operations for Wednesday, February 28; all personnel are to report for duty according to their assigned schedule."

The plant is located some 30 miles east of Amarillo.

When it paused its operations, the company wrote in a social media post that, "All weapons and special materials are safe and unaffected." Pantex later clarified that "there is currently no fire on the plant site and emergency personnel continue to monitor the situation." Pantex said all employees had been accounted for and "non-essential personnel are no longer on site."

Several large wildfires ignited Monday under warm, dry, and windy conditions across the Panhandle. Canadian, a town in the Panhandle, was first told to evacuate and then to shelter in place. The Canadian Independent School District canceled classes for Wednesday.

Evacuations were underway in Fritch, just one of four wildfires burning in the Panhandle. The Texas A&M Forest Service says the wind-driven Deuce fire is only 55% contained and 142,000 acres have burned. Evacuations are still in place for the fire area.

The Amarillo Area Office of Emergency Management said late Tuesday night that "Randall County, Potter County, and City of Amarillo, Texas have declared a local state of disaster. ... The only area being evacuated at this time is the Mesilla Park area."

Smokehouse Creek fire in Hutchinson County
  Smokehouse Creek fire in Hutchinson County. Feb. 27, 2024. Texas A&M Forest Service

The Grape Vine Creek Fire in Gray County is an estimated 30,000 acres and 60% contained. 

"As Agriculture Commissioner, I am deeply concerned about the devastating wildfires raging through the Texas Panhandle," Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said via social media. "Our thoughts are with them during this challenging time, and we're committed to supporting their recovery efforts every step of the way." 

The Texas A&M Veterinary Emergency Team (VET) deployed Wednesday to provide veterinary care to resident animals and support local shelters. VET also has the support of 12 search and rescue dogs deployed with Texas A&M Texas Task Force 1.

The Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association launched a fundraising campaign to aid victims of the wildfires.

"A fire is one of the most tragic events that can impact ranches, and a natural disaster such as the widespread wildfires in Texas and Oklahoma can result in financial hardships and deep impacts to our ranching communities," said TSCRA President Arthur Uhl.

The Texas A&M Forest Service is bracing for more wildfire activity in the coming weeks.   

Thursday night, Abbott granted temporary waivers to state regulations to assist in wildfire response.

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