The Panhandle wildfires

Scary stuff.

A blanket of snow and rain that descended over the Texas Panhandle on Thursday helped firefighters to quell the spread of the largest wildfire in the state’s history, which has engulfed more than 1 million acres of land and killed at least two people.

But firefighters are racing against the clock to temper down the flames before the weekend, when weather forecasters predict another round of gusty winds and low humidity could again create dangerous fire conditions for the remote region in the top corner of Texas.

The National Weather Service in Amarillo has issued a fire weather watch for Saturday afternoon through Sunday evening, leaving firefighters desperate to rein in the massive blaze before windy conditions return to the region. Friday is expected to be warm and dry.

“We are concerned if we don’t secure everything in the next 48 hours, there is potential it will spread again,” said Adam Turner, public information officer with Texas A&M Forest Service, on Thursday. He said crews are trying to put out as much of the fire now so more areas are secure before winds pick back up.

The Smokehouse Creek fire alone, which broke out Monday afternoon about 65 miles north of Amarillo, surpassed the million acreage mark and spreads across Texas and Oklahoma. It is larger than the East Amarillo Complex fire in 2006, which blazed through 906,000 acres of land and used to hold the record for the state’s largest wildfire.

The Smokehouse Creek fire was followed by a second one to the west called the Windy Deuce fire, which burned 142,000 acres of land across multiple counties north of Amarillo.

Firefighters have only managed to quell the Smokehouse Creek fire by 3%, a figure that has largely remained unchanged since Wednesday. The Windy Deuce Fire in Moore County is 50% contained as of Thursday afternoon, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service, which is tasked by the state to respond to wildfires. Texas A&M Forest Service officials said Thursday they had turned over management of the two wildfires to a federal incident management team because of their massive size.

The cause of the fires is unknown at this time and still under investigation, according to Karen Stafford, Texas A&M Forest Service Fire Prevention Program Coordinator.

The fires have ravaged nearly 2,000 square miles. The winds initially pushed fires to the east, but a cold front abruptly shifted the winds to blow the whole fire line to the south, which made the situation more dangerous.

Two other fires in the region continue to burn but are now largely contained. A third, smaller fire in Hutchinson County was about 10% contained as of Thursday evening. Another nearby smaller blaze was 100% contained, according to the Forest Service. Wildfires have become more frequent and severe in the Western United States because of warmer and drier conditions, factors that are worsening because of climate change.

There’s more, and I’ve got a bunch more links below. This is bad, and as you can see from the map it’s all close enough to Amarillo to potentially have an impact on a big population center (the city of Amarillo has 200K people, and the greater metro area has about 270K). All we can do is hope for the best from the weather and refer to these resources if you want to help in some way.

More info:

Texans in the Panhandle recall towering smoke and darkened skies as wildfires crept near their towns
Texas wildfires: how to help and how to stay safe
Wildfires ravage cattle country, threatening Texas’ agriculture economy
Texas Panhandle wildfires: Officials describe devastating damage, urge precaution as inferno continues
Record winter heat, dry air helped drive Panhandle fire risk
North Texas firefighters deploy to the largest fire in state’s history

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