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    Tuesday, April 16, 2024

    Wildfire grows into one of largest in Texas history

    A telephone pole burns from the Smokehouse Creek Fire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. (AP Photo/David Erickson)

    Canadian, Texas — A cluster of wildfires scorched the Texas Panhandle on Wednesday, including a blaze that grew into one of the largest in state history, as flames moved with alarming speed and blackened the landscape across a vast stretch of small towns and cattle ranches.

    An 83-year-old grandmother from the tiny town of Stinnett was the lone confirmed fatality. However, authorities have yet to make a thorough search for victims and have warned the damage to some communities is extensive.

    Known as the Smokehouse Creek Fire, the largest blaze expanded to more than 1,300 square miles and jumped into parts of neighboring Oklahoma. It is now larger than the state of Rhode Island, and the Texas A&M Forest Service said the flames were only about 3% contained.

    "I believe the fire will grow before it gets fully contained,” said Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

    The largest fire recorded in state history was the 2006 East Amarillo Complex fire, which burned about 1,400 square miles and resulted in 13 deaths.

    Walls of flames were pushed by powerful winds while huge plumes of smoke billowed hundreds of feet in the air across the sparsely populated region. The smoke delayed aerial surveillance of the damage in some areas.

    “There was one point where we couldn’t see anything,” said Greg Downey, 57, describing his escape as flames bore down on his neighborhood. “I didn’t think we’d get out of it.”

    The woman who died was identified by family members as Joyce Blankenship, a former substitute teacher. Her grandson, Lee Quesada, said he had posted in a community forum asking if anyone could try and locate her. Quesada said deputies told his uncle on Wednesday that they had found Blankenship’s remains in her burned home.

    Quesada said she’d surprise him at times with funny little stories “about her more ornery days.”

    “Just talking to her was a joy,” he said, adding that “Joy” was a nickname of hers.

    Hemphill County Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Kendall described the charred terrain as being “like a moonscape. ... It's just all gone.”

    Kendall said about 40 homes were burned around the perimeter of the town of Canadian, but no buildings were lost inside the community. Kendall also said he saw “hundreds of cattle just dead, laying in the fields.”

    Tresea Rankin videotaped her own home in Canadian as it burned.

    “Thirty-eight years of memories, that’s what you were thinking,” Rankin said of watching the flames destroy her house. “Two of my kids were married there ... But you know, it’s OK, the memories won’t go away.”

    The small town of Fritch, north of Amarillo, lost hundreds of homes in a 2014 fire and appeared to be hit hard again. Mayor Tom Ray said Wednesday that an estimated 40 to 50 homes were destroyed on the southern edge. Ray said natural gas remained shut off for the town of 2,200.

    Residents are probably not "prepared for what they’re going to see if they pull into town,” Hutchinson County Emergency Management spokesperson Deidra Thomas said in a social media livestream. She compared the damage to a tornado.

    Authorities have not said what ignited the fires, but strong winds, dry grass and unseasonably warm temperatures fed the blazes. Near Borger, a community of about 13,000 people, emergency officials at one point late Tuesday answered questions from panicked residents on Facebook and told them to get ready to leave if they had not already.

    “It was like a ring of fire around Borger. There was no way out ... all four main roads were closed,” said Adrianna Hill, whose home was within about a mile of the fire. She said wind that blew the fire in the opposite direction “saved our butts.”

    Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties. The encroaching flames caused the main facility that disassembles America’s nuclear arsenal to pause operations Tuesday night, but it was open for normal work Wednesday.

    The weather forecast provided some hope for firefighters — cooler temperatures, less wind and possibly rain on Thursday. However, the situation was dire in some areas Wednesday.

    Sustained winds of up to 45 mph, with gusts of up to 70 mph, caused the fires that were spreading east to turn south, threatening new areas, forecasters said. But winds calmed down after a cold front came through Tuesday evening, said Peter Vanden Bosch, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Amarillo.

    Breezy conditions were expected again Friday, and fire-friendly weather could return by the weekend, Vanden Bosch said Wednesday.

    Kidd said the weekend forecast and “sheer size and scope” of the blaze are the biggest challenges for firefighters.

    “I don’t want the community there to feel a false sense of security that all these fires will not grow anymore,” Kidd said. “This is still a very dynamic situation.”

    As evacuation orders mounted Tuesday, county and city officials implored residents to turn on emergency alert services on their cellphones and be ready to leave immediately.

    “We got a great response from the community when they were asked to evacuate. They did,” Kidd said. “We believe that saved lives, and we don’t want people going back if the evacuation orders are still in place.”

    The Pantex nuclear weapon plant, northeast of Amarillo, evacuated nonessential staff Tuesday night out of an “abundance of caution,” said Laef Pendergraft, a spokesperson for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s production office at Pantex. Firefighters remained in case of an emergency.

    Pantex tweeted early Wednesday that the facility was “open for normal day shift operations.”

    The Smokehouse Creek Fire spread from Texas into neighboring Roger Mills County in western Oklahoma, where officials encouraged people in the Durham area to flee. At least 13 homes burned in fires in the state's Panhandle region, officials said Wednesday.

    The weather service also issued red-flag warnings and fire-danger alerts for several other states through the midsection of the country.

    Associated Press reporters Ken Miller in Oklahoma City, Lisa Baumann in Bellingham, Wash,, and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

    Charred vehicles sit at an auto body shop after the property was burned by the Smokehouse Creek Fire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
    A helicopter carries a bucket as it flies over homes burned by the Smokehouse Creek Fire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
    Damage to a property burned by the Smokehouse Creek Fire is seen Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
    Charred vehicles sit at an auto body shop after the property was burned by the Smokehouse Creek Fire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
    Smoke billows on a field near a windmill during the Smokehouse Creek Fire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
    Damage is seen to a home burned by the Smokehouse Creek Fire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
    A burned car rests near the charred remains of a home outside of Canadian, Texas, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, after a wildfire passed. A fast-moving wildfire burning through the Texas Panhandle grew into the second-largest blaze in state history Wednesday, forcing evacuations and triggering power outages as firefighters struggled to contain the widening flames. (AP Photo/Sean Murphy)
    The remains of a burned home smolder in Canadian, Texas on Wednesday, Feb 28, 2024. A fast-moving wildfire burning through the Texas Panhandle grew into the second-largest blaze in state history Wednesday, forcing evacuations and triggering power outages as firefighters struggled to contain the widening flames. (AP Photo/Sean Murphy)
    Homes destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire are seen Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. (AP Photo/David Erickson)
    This image taken from Greenville Fire-Rescue's facebook page on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024 shows fires in the Texas Panhandle. A fast-moving wildfire burning through the Texas Panhandle grew into the second-largest blaze in state history, forcing evacuations and triggering power outages as firefighters struggled to contain the widening flames. (Greenville Fire-Rescue via AP)
    This aerial image provided by the City of Borger/Hutchinson County OEM shows homes damaged from a wildfire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (City of Borger/Hutchinson County OEM via AP)
    Charred vehicles sit at an auto body shop after the property was burned by the Smokehouse Creek Fire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
    This aerial image provided by the City of Borger/Hutchinson County OEM shows property damaged from a wildfire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. (City of Borger/Hutchinson County OEM via AP)
    This satellite color infrared image provided by Maxar Technologies shows an active fire line and burn scars from the Smokehouse Creek wildfire west of Miami, Texas, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024. Burned vegetation appears in shades of black/grey and healthy, not burned, vegetation appears in shades of red/pink. The flames blackened the landscape across a vast stretch of small towns and cattle ranches. (Maxar Technologies via AP)
    Charred vehicles sit at an auto body shop after the property was burned by the Smokehouse Creek Fire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
    A vehicle rides northbound on Highway 83 near a charred area burned by the Smokehouse Creek Fire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
    Utility workers labor on a downed power line near a property burned by the Smokehouse Creek Fire, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
    Charred tree trunks smolder after the Smokehouse Creek Fire burned through the area Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024, in Canadian, Texas. (AP Photo/David Erickson)

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