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Texas firefighters closer to extinguishing Panhandle wildfires

By Jayme Lozano Carver, The Texas Tribune

Texas firefighters closer to extinguishing Panhandle wildfires” 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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LUBBOCK — Texas firefighters are gaining more control over the remaining wildfires in the Panhandle, more than two weeks after the infernos first engulfed large swaths of the region and burned more than 1 million acres.

As of Monday, the Smokehouse Creek fire — which quickly became the largest wildfire in state history — was 89% contained. This means firefighters have secured nearly the entire perimeter around the fire, stopping it from spreading. This is a significant improvement from the week before, when the fire was only 37% contained. The fire has burned nearly 1.1 million acres since it started near Stinnett in Hutchinson County, about 60 miles northeast of Amarillo.

The fire caused severe damage as it scorched 90% of the land in neighboring Roberts County. It also burned in parts of Hemphill County, and some land in Carson, Gray and Wheeler counties.

Details on the fire itself — like how much land is still in flames and how much is smoldering — wasn’t available late Monday.

According to Texas A&M Forest Service, pockets of vegetation burned on Sunday within the containment lines of the Smokehouse Creek fire. However, firefighters were able to mitigate those areas and there is not a threat of the fire expanding.

The Windy Deuce fire that burned nearly 145,000 acres in Moore, Carson, Hutchinson and Potter counties was 94% contained as of Monday.

According to the forest service, firefighters are still patrolling the area while crews watch containment lines to make sure there’s no heat nearby. Late last week, firefighters began “mopping up” pockets of residual heat, which is when they spray water on hot spots that could further ignite the fire.

However, mopping can be a difficult task in rough terrain during large fires — the Smokehouse Creek fire spans the size of Rhode Island. At one point, authorized drones were being used by firefighters to see where vulnerable spots were.

Ryan Kelly, a firefighter with the West Odessa Volunteer Fire Department, piloted a drone with thermal imaging over the burned fields in Fritch as a way to save firefighters from walking through dangerous terrain. On the drone’s map, hot spots show up in black, and then the pilot can essentially guide the trucks and firefighters to that location.

“It limits their exposure to things and helps us maintain vehicles,” Kelly said. “Instead of them driving off randomly into a pasture looking for it, we can give them a direct route.”

Firefighters got the Grape Vine Creek fire under 100% containment by Sunday after it burned nearly 35,000 acres in Gray County.

“All state resources have been released and the fire transitioned back to the local unit,” the Forest Service said.

According to Amarillo’s National Weather Service, fire weather conditions will possibly return to the Panhandle Tuesday. The highest likelihood of critical fire weather conditions is in the western side of the region going into New Mexico.

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he requested disaster declarations from the U.S. Small Business Administration. If Abbott’s request is approved, Carson, Hemphill, Hutchinson and their neighboring communities affected by the wildfires will be able to receive federal assistance through disaster loans.

“SBA assistance will be a critical step for Texans impacted by wildfires in the Panhandle toward recovering and rebuilding their communities,” Abbott said in a press release. “An approved SBA disaster declaration will give Texans access to crucial loans they need as they navigate the aftermath of these wildfires.”


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/03/12/texas-panhandle-wildfires-containment/.

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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