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Record wildfire wreaks havoc in Texas

By MAY ZHOU in Houston | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2024-03-05 12:57

This handout picture courtesy of the Texas A&M Forest Service and taken on February 26, 2024, shows heavy equipment working to contain the Juliet Pass Fire in Armstrong County, Texas. [Photo/Agencies]

More than 1 million acres have burned in the largest wildfire in Texas history, causing the evacuation of towns, two deaths and heavy damage to the cattle industry.

There are five active wildfires in Texas, with the Smokehouse Creek fire in Hutchinson County the largest at 1.07 million acres and only 15 percent contained, according to the latest update by the Texas A&M Forest Service on Monday afternoon. Four other fires are smaller and are between 50 and 85 percent contained.

Fires in the Texas Panhandle have burned nearly 1.3 million acres since erupting last week. The Smokehouse fire has burned through more than 1.1 million acres — equivalent to more than 1,700 square miles — killing livestock, destroying hundreds of structures and burning crops. The fire also has spread to Oklahoma, where more than 31,500 acres have been scorched.

The Texas A&M Forest Service said Monday that cooler temperatures and less wind will aid in attempts to contain the active wildfires. However, it warned that "an underlying risk for new wildfires will continue in the Texas Panhandle and South Texas until spring green-up occurs in the abundance of grass vegetation found in these regions".

More than 50 Texas National Guard members and hundreds more personnel from various state emergency response resources have been deployed to battle the wildfires. 

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has said that much of the affected areas are "completely gone", with "nothing left but ashes on the ground". Early assessments show that up to 500 structures had been destroyed as of Friday afternoon. 

On Facebook, people have posted photos of burned-down structures and skies covered by smoke or orange glows.

"These fires not only threaten lives and property but will also have a substantial impact on our agriculture industry," Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in a statement.

"Over 85 percent of the state’s cattle population is located on ranches in the panhandle. There are millions of cattle out there, with some towns comprising more cattle than people. The losses could be catastrophic for those counties," Miller said.

Abbott said he is going to request a federal disaster declaration to help in the recovery.

On Feb 29, President Joe Biden said he had directed his team to "do everything possible to help protect the people and the communities threatened by these fires".

More than 100 federal firefighters were headed to the state, he said, as well as "dozens of additional fire engines, air tankers, small planes, helicopters to help fight the flames".

The two deaths were of truck driver Cindy Owen, 44, and Joyce Blankenship, 83.

Owen was working about 50 miles north of Pampa, Texas, on Feb 27 when the Smokehouse Creek fire overcame her, her sister-in-law told CNN. She left her truck and tried running for safety but suffered fatal burns over almost her entire body, said the wife of Owen’s brother.

In nearby Hutchinson County, Blankenship was found dead in her house, her family said. "The house was gone," her grandson Nathan Blankenship said. "There was no way she could’ve gotten out."

The Texas Tribune reported that while fire officials have yet to determine the causes of the Texas Panhandle wildfires, lawyers for landowners are either filing or planning to file lawsuits against some utility companies.

Melanie McQuiddy, a homeowner in Canadian, Texas, filed a lawsuit that alleges a splintered utility pole owned by the company fell and started the Smokehouse Creek fire and destroyed her house. 

She claims the pole was in bad physical shape before it fell.

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