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Panhandle residents begin rebuilding, even as fight to contain fires continues

By Carlos Nogueras Ramos, The Texas Tribune

Panhandle residents begin rebuilding, even as fight to contain fires continues” 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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CANADIAN — Every time she hears a firetruck, Linda Vigil’s heart jumps.

Last Tuesday, as a fast-moving grass fire surrounded her hometown from all directions, she closed up her flower shop and rushed to pick up her teenage daughter and son from school.

Unsure of where to go, the three fled south. Vigil had been keeping track of the fires through social media. They spent over an hour trying to make what’s usually a 35-minute drive to Wheeler but got stuck in traffic. Smoke began to creep into the car. They closed the windows, shut the vents and covered their faces. Vigil thought they were about to die.

Stuck in limbo, they did the only thing they could: wait for the traffic to pick up. The family eventually made it to a shelter in Childress, 108 miles south of Canadian. They slept in cots that night and returned to Canadian the next day.

“I feel like we were given a new lease on life,” Vigil said.

By Thursday, the fire in the Panhandled had covered 1,700 square miles, extraordinarily larger than the 1.3 acres that make up the city limits of Vigil’s hometown. Canadian was stuck right in the middle, destruction everywhere. Firefighters were still scrambling to contain it.

But Vigil was ready to reopen her shop, Perla’s Flowers and Gifts, named after her daughter. It’s her way of returning to a routine, she said.

In Canadian, the process of rebuilding has slowly begun. State officials still list the fire as only 15% contained, though it hasn’t spread since the weekend began. A new, so-far smaller blaze emerged Sunday night, forcing the evacuation of the tiny town of Sanford. Still, days into the aftermath, the town’s residents and leaders have begun to calculate the damage while attempting to recover shreds of normalcy.

Tasked with the city’s recovery, Hemphill County’s newly elected highest-ranking official, County Judge Lisa Johnson, makes call after call.

The first call she made on Saturday morning was to the state. She needed to ask the Texas Division of Emergency Management to reroute generators because an election was approaching — the region’s representative in the Texas House is facing a spirited primary challenge — and some voting precincts needed the electricity. Election day is Tuesday.

Officials have yet to release an official count of homes lost to the blazes, but Johnson estimates that number to be 50, roughly 100 displaced, in a county of less than 3,000. Earlier that week, local officials weren’t sure Canadians would survive at all.

The city’s scars are on the border, where the fires claimed brick homes and trailer camps. On the horizon, a veil of smoke still dulls the blue sky. The quiet has been replaced by helicopters flying over the fields inspecting the fire. Furious gusts of wind carry a mixture of dust and ash. Even as they reach for normalcy, the surroundings remind them of the phenomenon that ravaged their city.

Johnson issued the first evacuation order on Tuesday, one of a handful. The scene was apocalyptic. The northern corridor of Highway 60, a major artery connecting Canadian to other cities, was closed. She began instructing the residents to move to the city of Wheeler, 51 miles south. When Johnson realized the fires had encircled most of the city, she issued a mandatory evacuation.

By the time residents fled for the shelters further south, Wheeler issued its own evacuation order, forcing the refugees back to Canadian.

“At that point, there’s no leaving Canadian,” Johnson said. “And this city was surrounded by fire in every direction. I remember just being afraid that this entire city would burn, and I had no idea how many residents were still here.”

State and federal authorities have been headquartered in Canadian to assist the town in what has become a dual effort to contain the flames and assess the devastation.

The state has deployed 875 first responders, said Seth Christensen, a spokesperson for the Texas Division of Emergency Management. The agency stationed 250 of those officers in Canadian, where they established first responders assigned to the region, housed in rows of campers. Christensen said the officers would remain there until firefighters contained the fire.

Meanwhile, residents are already re-embracing their routines. Darlise Powell returned to her job at the Hemphill County Library on Main Street on Thursday after spending the last few days on the run. Powell, her husband and son drove upwards of 300 miles in eight hours in two days. The couple constantly had to stop and wipe off the ash as it accumulated on the windshield. Powell counted the cars on the highway but eventually lost that count. She had cried herself hoarse in the car. When she returned, she felt a wave of relief when she saw her home was where she had left it.

But since she’s returned to her job, she has replaced three library cards and has folded so many donated denim pants she’s lost count. Every so often, when a patron enters the brick, columned building and beckons for help, she jumps out of her seat.

Her son, Trevor, was helping rebuild a fence north of town. The town which they had lived in for 17 years was still home.

Vigil felt the same way at her flower shop a few blocks away, across from the Stumblin’ Goat Saloon.

By Saturday, she’d had three customers. She told them which flowers to buy for a birthday. People need flowers for their birthdays, she said.

A bible sits among other items donated for people affected by the fires in the Panhandle, at the Hemphill Co. Extension building in Canadian on Sunday, March. 3, 2024.
A bible sits among other items donated for people affected by the fires in the Panhandle, at the Hemphill Co. Extension building in Canadian on Sunday, March. 3, 2024. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

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