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One of the largest wildfires in Texas history still burning in the Texas Panhandle

In this photo provided by the Flower Mound, Texas, Fire Department, Flower Mound firefighters respond to a fire in the Texas Panhandle, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.
Flower Mound Fire Department
In this photo provided by the Flower Mound, Texas, Fire Department, Flower Mound firefighters respond to a fire in the Texas Panhandle, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.

Firefighting crews on Wednesday continued battling a near-record size wildfire scorching the Texas Panhandle. As of Wednesday afternoon, the fire had already affected more than 850,000 acres, as high wind speeds and dry weather conditions continue to fuel the blaze.

The Smokehouse Creek fire in Hutchinson County is the largest fire among a handful burning across the Amarillo area. The fire was 3% contained as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

The outbreak of wildfires prompted Gov. Greg Abbott to issue a disaster declaration Tuesday for 60 counties in the area. The state has also activated the Texas Department of Emergency Management to initiate increased firefighting response resources.

The Smokehouse Creek fire has so far burned almost 800 square miles and is the second-largest blaze in Texas history, the Associated Press reported. The fire also forced the Pantex plant, a nuclear weapons facility located about 20 miles from Amarillo, to temporary evacuate nonessential personnel Tuesday night. As of Wednesday morning, however, Pantex was back to normal operations.

Terrill Bartlett, the mayor of Canadian, Texas in Hemphill County, told CNN on Wednesday morning that about half of the town’s residents were able to evacuate Tuesday night but a change in wind patterns forced the other half to shelter in place.

“Smoke and flames prevented anyone from leaving to the south, (while) the north highways leading out of town had been closed for some time,” he said. “Luckily no one was severely injured, no one lost their lives but there were quite a few homes burned.”

As of Wednesday morning, Bartlett said that he didn’t know the exact number of structures that had been destroyed and said emergency crews were still assessing the damage and relocating displaced residents.

There was some hope that cooler weather Wednesday would aid firefighters in their efforts after fire activity decreased overnight, according to the Weather Channel.

“Weather conditions are trending more favorable for firefighters on Wednesday with high pressure in control, which means much lighter winds, colder temperatures and higher humidity. There's even a chance of snow tonight into early Thursday,” Weather.com’s senior meteorologist Chris Dolce wrote.

Erin O’Conner, the public information officer for the Texas A & M Forest Service, told the Texas Standard earlier that as of Wednesday morning, despite the scope of the blaze, there have been no confirmed casualties or severe injuries.

There has been damage to structures, she added, but the extent of the damage won’t be known until it’s safe for authorities to conduct more thorough inspections.

“It’s just such a fast-moving complex situation at this time and so our firefighters are focused on life safety, those evacuations were important (in) getting people out of harms way,” she said. “And then we can go back in an evaluate when conditions moderate and it’s safe to put firefighters back in there.”

O’Conner added that weather conditions will improve Wednesday and Thursday, but windy conditions are forecast to return later in the week.

“We’re anticipating there is going to be less winds, so lower wind speeds, cooler temperatures which is favorable,” she said. “So, our firefighters will be able to increase containment. They’ll be able to take advantage of these better conditions so the fire will hopefully not be as active in anticipation of drier and windier conditions this weekend.”

Copyright 2024 KERA

Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom