Texas Panhandle Wildfires Spread Over 500,000 Acres Prompting Evacuations

Wildfires were spreading rapidly in Texas and Oklahoma on Wednesday, prompting evacuations and the closure of a plant that disassembles nuclear weapons.

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas issued a disaster declaration on Tuesday for 60 counties, activating state resources to help local firefighters. He urged residents to limit activities that could create sparks.

The largest current blaze in the Texas Panhandle is the Smokehouse Creek fire, which was ignited on Monday. By early Wednesday, it had spread quickly to at least 500,000 acres, fueled by strong winds and dry conditions, and was uncontrolled, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

That makes it the second largest in the state’s recorded history of wildfires, Erin O’Connor, a spokeswoman for the forest service, said on Wednesday. The largest was the Amarillo Complex in 2006, which scorched about a million acres.

The Smokehouse Creek fire “is a significant fire,” Ms. O’Connor said. “It looks alarming, how quickly it is spreading.”

At one point, fires appeared to surround the Texas Panhandle town of Canadian, a cattle-country community of around 2,200 people northeast of Amarillo near the Oklahoma state line. Residents who had not already evacuated were forced to shelter in place. The county sheriff warned that there were no open routes out of the town.

Dozens of people took shelter inside a church, according to a local news outlet, The Canadian Record. Others were offered the use of the local high school gym. Some residents simply stayed at home and hoped for the best.

“There is a lot of stuff that’s just gone,” said Cody Cameron, 56, who said he and his wife had been at home trying to gather up their three cats when the roads into and out of Canadian were closed on Tuesday. By Wednesday, some roads had reopened.

A portion of fire got close to his backyard during the night, Mr. Cameron said, but then it died away. “We got lucky,” he said.

The extent of the damage was not yet clear on Wednesday. Houses on the outskirts of town appeared to have been affected the most, while those in the center of the community were largely spared, according to Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian Record, which has been posting updates on its Facebook page.

“Among the many houses that burned down was the sheriff’s house,” she said, adding that the sheriff had been out working and was not home at the time.

The fire was fueled by dry, dead grasses in a drainage area, said Ms. O’Connor of the forest service, who called land like that the “perfect environment to support the growth that we have seen” in the burn zone.

The fires raged and erratically shifted on Tuesday as cold air with a rapid change in wind direction pushed through the region. The fire danger may ease on Wednesday and Thursday, with lighter winds forecast across the Texas Panhandle.

“Conditions are going to moderate a little bit,” Ms. O’Connor said, which would give firefighters a chance to suppress the blazes before Friday, when the humidity is expected to drop again and strong winds are forecast to return.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered for several towns in Texas, the Forest Service said. The National Weather Service office in Amarillo said that a neighborhood in that city had also been ordered to evacuate.

A hospital system in Canadian evacuated all of its patients and staff Tuesday afternoon, according to the Hemphill County Hospital District.

In addition to the massive Smokehouse Creek fire, the Forest Service was tracking several active fires across the Texas Panhandle including around the town of Fritch, north of Amarillo, where the local sheriff told residents of several neighborhoods to evacuate on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the county emergency management office said fires had swept through neighborhoods, destroying homes. Residents were being permitted to re-enter the town in some cases, she said, but cautioned that damage in some cases was extensive.

“I don’t think a lot of the folks that live in the Fritch area are probably going to be prepared for what they’re going to see as they pull into town,” said the spokeswoman, Deidra Thomas, in a video on Facebook. “It’s kind of like you see with a tornado. It will hit one house and completely miss the next one.”

Meteorologists in Amarillo advised people to stay home and keep their pets indoors because of the poor air quality caused by smoke from the wildfires. Air quality alerts were also issued further south, in Lubbock.

Across the state line in western Oklahoma, local officials told some residents of Ellis and Roger Mills counties to leave.

Near Amarillo, a wildfire was burning north of the Pantex plant that disassembles nuclear weapons, officials said. The plant suspended operations and ordered nonessential personnel to evacuate.

“They are working hand in hand with the local jurisdiction, and taking precautions to ensure their plant is safe,” said Ms. O’Connor, the forest service spokeswoman.

There was no fire on the plant’s site or near its boundaries, but nuclear safety officials were responding anyway, said Laef Pendergraft, a nuclear safety engineer for the National Nuclear Security Administration production office at Pantex. The plant has an on-site fire department, he said at a news conference.

Unseasonably high temperatures and high winds were spurring wildfires elsewhere in the Great Plains as well, including in Nebraska and Kansas.

Christine Hauser, Miglena Sternadori and Judson Jones contributed reporting.

First appeared on www.nytimes.com

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