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Three months after the Texas’ largest wildfire, Panhandle residents are preparing for the next one

Green grass grows around plants and trees scorched by Smokehouse Creek wildfire on April 3 near Canadian. “The lands recover faster than the people,” said Janet Guthrie, a Canadian resident who raises cattle in Hemphill County.
Maria Crane
/
The Texas Tribune
Green grass grows around plants and trees scorched by Smokehouse Creek wildfire on April 3 near Canadian. “The lands recover faster than the people,” said Janet Guthrie, a Canadian resident who raises cattle in Hemphill County.

LUBBOCK — Spring rains have revived much of the green grass covering stretches of plains in the Texas Panhandle — the same land that, just three months ago, was black from fire and ash after wildfires burned more than 1 million acres across the region.

The land is slowly healing from its scars. And yet, the devastation still haunts those who call the Panhandle home.

“The lands recover faster than the people,” said Janet Guthrie a Canadian resident who raises cattle in Hemphill County.

Guthrie is one case of survivor’s guilt that echoes through the northern Panhandle as residents in the rural region continue to rebuild their lives after several fires raged in late February and early March. Her pasture burned, along with part of her yard, while many of her neighbors lost more, she said.

In total, two people were killed, as well as more than 10,000 cattle. Scores of homes, ranches and other personal property were destroyed. The losses may exceed $1 billion, a figure that includes $123 million in agricultural losses and $35 million worth of lost homes in Hemphill County.

As summer nears, the mentality among residents is largely one of self-mitigation — keeping the grass mowed, running the sprinklers, watching for overgrown weeds.

The preventive measures are in lieu of action by state government. Official measures are still in the works between lawmakers, state offices, and the companies that put their equipment in vulnerable, isolated areas of Texas.

A solution to the deadly wildfires — and the collective fear among residents — can’t come soon enough. The next legislative session begins in late January, when the Panhandle is nearing wildfire season, a time when warm temperatures, strong winds and a dry climate can turn an idle spark into a roaring fire.

A state House investigative committee determined the causes of the five fires were either unmaintained power lines coming in contact with dry, grassy land or old, neglected oilfield sites. The committee called for more monitoring of oil and gas operators and utility services, who are entrusted to maintain and inspect the miles of lines strung throughout the northern tip of the state.

A Texas House committee led by state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, holds a legislative hearing investigating the Panhandle wildfires on April 4 in Pampa.
Maria Crane
/
The Texas Tribune
A Texas House committee led by state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, holds a legislative hearing investigating the Panhandle wildfires on April 4 in Pampa.
A broken power pole is partially covered by blowing dirt loosened by rangeland burned by the wildfire, near Canadian on March 2.
REUTERS
/
Leah Millis
A broken power pole is partially covered by blowing dirt loosened by rangeland burned by the wildfire, near Canadian on March 2.

State Rep. Ken King, a Canadian Republican who led the committee, said on-site operators have a responsibility to maintain those properties and are failing to do so. He said lawmakers are working with several state agencies, including the Railroad Commission and State Fire Marshal, to remedy what they can do before the legislative session next January.

“It is on the state to enforce the law,” King said. “What we can’t fix, that’s where the bills will be drafted from.”

Data shows that climate change is driving wildfires to be more intense and longer wildfire seasons in the Panhandle. Five of the largest wildfires in Texas history collectively burned nearly 2.6 million acres since 2006,according to data from Texas A&M Forest Service. This includes this year’s Smokehouse Creek fire, which grew into the largest in state history. With the region becoming more vulnerable to wildfires and the legislative session being months away, Panhandle residents find themselves doing what they can do to stave off the danger.

The morning the fires started, Guthrie’s husband turned on the sprinklers to water their lawn.

The winds were picking up. He hoped the wet ground would keep the fire at bay.

By the end of the day, their pasture and part of their yard burned, except for a corner that was hit by the sprinklers. One of the horses they couldn’t rein in chose that spot as sanctuary from the flames.

“We thought we would have lost him, the barn, the house,” Guthrie said. “By the efforts of firefighters and the grace of preventive measures, we did not.”

Guthrie concedes it doesn’t always work — homes with well-maintained lawns were completely lost.

For the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, similar action stopped the fires from reaching the water supply for thousands in the region. Flames were creeping up on the headquarters near Lake Meredith, forcing an evacuation.

Local firefighters work to contain a wildfire after it was whipped up by high winds in Pampa on March 2.
REUTERS
/
Leah Millis
Local firefighters work to contain a wildfire after it was whipped up by high winds in Pampa on March 2.

The fire stopped short of the building. Drew Satterwhite, general manager for the water authority, credits preventive measures and other on-site resources for halting the fire from reaching the headquarters and saving critical infrastructure, such as electric wiring to pump water and power control room operations.

“We’ve got to do what we can to keep the vegetation at a minimum around all our key sites,” Satterwhite said.

The water supplier has high-capacity water wells in a 50-square mile well field in Roberts County, nearly 80 miles northeast of Amarillo. Approximately 500,000 acres burned in the county. Satterwhite said the authority has 795 power poles in the field, and they routinely cut weeds around the poles and check them.

The water authority's headquarters were spared, but other critical water infrastructure was damaged by the wildfires. According to the committee’s report, hundreds of water wells were destroyed or rendered unusable.

Andy Holloway, AgriLife Extension Service agent for Hemphill County, said the fires melted electric wiring and control panels near water well sites, affecting pumps and power sources for some wells. Holloway said it has to be repaired by an electrician when they can.

“It’s a big job,” Holloway said. “When there’s a lot of them to do, it takes a lot of supplies, time, and people.”

John Julian with Canadian Water Well was busy for weeks after the fires because of damanged water wells at homes and ranches. His company has seen wells that were a total loss, which costs about $30,000 to redo. But, they’ve seen more wells that can be repaired, which can be as little as $3,000 and as much as $9,000, depending on the needs.

Some people have repaired their wells. Others are waiting. After all, they have no livestock to give the water to.

A pick-up truck damaged in the wildfire sits in front of a Panhandle home on State Highway 136 on Feb. 29.
Mark Rogers
A pick-up truck damaged in the wildfire sits in front of a Panhandle home on State Highway 136 on Feb. 29.
A business gutted by the Panhandle wildfire on Feb. 29.
Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune
A business gutted by the Panhandle wildfire on Feb. 29.

Julian has also lost equipment in wildfires and had damaged wells. It made him wonder what could be done differently to prevent the destruction from happening again.

“If I would have done a better job at keeping the weeds and grasses trimmed down around my meter poles and wells, I would have lost less equipment,” Julian said. “But it’s out of sight, out of mind.”

Even as relief funds continue to trickle in for victims of the wildfires, recovery looks different for everyone.

Some ranchers found new land to lease for their cattle, even if they aren’t getting more just yet. Displaced families purchased homes on the market in Canadian. Others are rebuilding their homes altogether, while some residents have relocated.

The memories of wildfires engulfing their homes and communities are far from distant for residents, but they are trying to move forward. Roberts County Judge Mitchell Locke said the summer’s heat isn’t a concern for most people in the region. Rain has kept fires to a minimum during this time of year.

And yet Locke knows it can be an issue at a moment’s notice, again

“It depends on the weather moving forward,” Locke said. “Fire season in Texas is always four weeks away, no matter what time of year it is.”


From the Texas Tribune