subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now
Fire speads in Panhandle, Texas, the US, February 27 2024. Picture: REUTERS
Fire speads in Panhandle, Texas, the US, February 27 2024. Picture: REUTERS

Canadian — Fire crews on Thursday fought to contain a deadly wildfire that has burned more than 404,600ha of grasslands, timber and residential areas in Texas’ northern Panhandle region, making it the second-largest fire in US history.

The wildfire has destroyed grain in storage bins and is likely to have killed tens of thousands of livestock, state agriculture commissioner Sid Miller said in an interview on Thursday. Texas is the US’s biggest cattle producer, and Miller said more than 85% of the state’s herd is in the Panhandle. 

The blaze, dubbed the Smokehouse Creek Fire, had doubled in size since Wednesday and was 3% contained on Thursday morning, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. Firefighters used a brief lull in the strong winds that have swept the area to erect barriers and tackle hot spots of downed trees and thick grass.

Cattle killed by the Smokehouse Creek wildfire lie in a field, outside of Canadian, Texas, the US, February 28 2024. Picture: REUTERS/Nick Oxford
Cattle killed by the Smokehouse Creek wildfire lie in a field, outside of Canadian, Texas, the US, February 28 2024. Picture: REUTERS/Nick Oxford

On Thursday, Jason Wilhelm, was using a front-loader to clear the lot in Canadian, a town about 161km northeast of Amarillo, where the house he shared with his wife and five children had stood a few days earlier. Charred grass and blackened trees were all that remained.

His wife was able to gather pictures, cash and some sentimental items from the home before the blaze roared through on Monday. “It was heartbreaking,” Wilhelm said.

Rain and snow falling in the area on Thursday offered a “shot of moisture” before the air dries out on Friday and high winds return over the weekend, said Steve Hannah, an Amarillo-based meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Gusts could reach more than 60km/h by Sunday, he said.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire has now burned through an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

The number of structures destroyed and people evacuated is still unclear, but dozens of homes have been reportedly levelled. The fire has so far killed one person, according to Texas A&M. The victim was described by local media as an 83-year-old woman in Hutchinson County, northeast of Amarillo.

Lee Haygood, the owner of a ranch about 40km southeast of Canadian who managed to save all his cattle, was counting his blessings on Thursday but also wondering how he would feed them.

“We didn’t lose any cattle, but we lost 75% of our grassland,” he said. “It’ll take a full growing season to come back, not until maybe the fall.”

Several smaller wildfires were burning in other parts of the Panhandle region. The next largest fire in the area, the Windy Deuce fire, has destroyed 57,465ha and was 30% contained on Thursday, according to Texas A&M.

On Tuesday, the Windy Deuce had crept to within a few kilometres of the US energy department’s Pantex plant, the country’s primary nuclear weapons assembly facility, located near Amarillo, prompting officials to evacuate non-essential personnel and suspend operations.

But the leading edge of that blaze shifted to the north and west, away from Pantex, on Wednesday, allowing routine activities at the plant to resume.

“Operations at the Pantex Plant returned to normal Wednesday,” the facility said in an online notice. “There is no imminent wildfire threat to the plant at this time.”

Reuters

subscribe Support our award-winning journalism. The Premium package (digital only) is R30 for the first month and thereafter you pay R129 p/m now ad-free for all subscribers.
Subscribe now

Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.