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Texans in the Panhandle recall towering smoke and darkened skies as wildfires crept near their towns

By Jayme Lozano Carver and Alejandra Martinez, The Texas Tribune

Texans in the Panhandle recall towering smoke and darkened skies as wildfires crept near their towns” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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MIAMI, Texas — As Roberts County Judge Mitchell Locke worked to make sure everyone evacuated safely from the spreading fires threatening his town, he and two other officials decided to stay put.

“We were talking about who was going to be the last man to go down with the ship,” Locke said. “Once we made the decision to stay, we just dug in and said we’ll be here until the end.”

Roberts County Judge Mitchell Locke talks to visitors in his office. Residents have been working to recover from the Tues day grass fires that devastated parts of the panhandle.
Roberts County Judge Mitchell Locke talks to visitors at his office on Thursday. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

Miami, with a population of about 500, is one of many small towns in the Texas Panhandle damaged by five wildfires that broke out in the region this week. As the rest of Texas slept early Wednesday, Locke was in his office at the Roberts County Courthouse watching flames from the Smokehouse Creek fire creep up closer and closer.

Within hours, the fire had grown out of control. Locke, who also serves as the emergency management coordinator, issued an evacuation order.

But he and the two other officials decided to stay as long as they could, knowing the road out of town was still open. They watched in Locke’s office as thick smoke and ash rolled in. It got so dark that the street lights outside activated.

[2 dead as largest wildfire in Texas history rages through the Panhandle]

The fires in the region have left at least two people dead and four injured firefighters. Cattle have been lost and homes and businesses decimated in their wake.

The Smokehouse Creek fire, which started in Hutchinson County, is the largest of the five, burning through more than 1 million acres in three days. In that time, firefighers have only been able to quell 3% of the fire. It has already become the largest wildfire in Texas history.

Meanwhile, the Windy Deuce fire in Moore County, located 35 miles west of Hutchinson County, has destroyed 142,000 acres of land. It was 50% contained as of Thursday afternoon.

The damages in Roberts County — known as Cattle Country — are still unclear but Locke said about 85% of the county was affected by the fire. His home is still standing but his family lost a large part of its ranch. He’s not sure how much of his cattle died — the fire intensified before he could get there. His father and a few others are planning to move the cattle that survived elsewhere.

“You have to just kind of give up and know you’re going to lose some,” Locke said. “Then pray and cross your fingers that they’ll survive, then check the next day.”

This home was destroyed by fire at 8566 State Highway 136. Residents have been working to recover from the Tuesday grass fires that devastated parts of the panhandle.
The remains of a home destroyed by wildfire sit on Texas Highway 136. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

Locke has gone through this type of devastation before. He lived through the East Amarillo Complex fire in 2006, which held the previous record for the state’s largest wildfire.

He can see some of the nearby damage from his office window. The black, charred ground covers the small hills as they rise and fall, leaving no sign of the grass that grew the year before.

“It starts to get to you, when you are used to going out and seeing native rangeland, with deer and antelope. Now there’s nothing except for dirt and ash,” Locke said.

The fires also reached Fritch, a town of nearly 2,500 west of Miami. Ruth DeRosa woke up to thick smoke, a sight that hit her hard.

From left, Chad Merritt and Casey Smith, of Midland, stand outside of their trucks at the Texas R.V. Park in Fritch, Tx. The two were hauling hay to help ranchers feed their livestock whose grass was destroyed by the fire. Residents have been working to recover from the Tuesday grass fires that devastated parts of the panhandle.
Chad Merritt and Casey Smith, of Midland, stand outside their trucks at the Texas R.V. Park in Fritch. The two were hauling hay to help ranchers feed their livestock after grass was destroyed by the fire. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

“Looking across the street, it was massive. Dark, black smoke and fire,” she said.

DeRosa, an office manager at the Hutchinson County’s library branch in Borger, said the wildfires spared her house but her family was forced to evacuate two days ago after work.

Her husband and DeRosa packed important documents, family pictures, clothes, toiletries and her three dogs quickly into their car. They went to the nearest evacuation center.

Campfire smell of smoke lingered in her hair, skin and clothes, she said. Her recently purchased car has lost its new car smell.

Members of the West Odessa Volunteer Fire Department ready their equipment in Fritch, Tx. Residents have been working to recover from the Tuesday grass fires that devastated parts of the panhandle.
Members of the West Odessa Volunteer Fire Department ready their equipment in Fritch. Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

“You can’t really escape it,” DeRosa said.

DeRosa reported to work at the library Thursday as Fritch was still in recovery mode. Land surrounding Texas Highway 136 was still smoldering in some places. Downed power lines resembled logs of wood in a fireplace. Sheet metal from destroyed roofs rattled haphazardly in the wind.

DeRosa said some residents seeking refuge had been stopping by. It’s been devastating to see older neighbors who’ve lost their homes and stranded residents who were unable to evacuate safely, she said. Many people had shocked expressions she described as “‘a deer in headlights’ look.”

“It’s very humbling and heartbreaking, honestly, and makes you wonder how the people are going to recover from it moving forward,” she said.

[Texas wildfires: how to help and how to stay safe]


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/29/texas-panhandle-wildfires-witnesses/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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