Texas wildfire becomes second-largest in state history; one death confirmed in blaze: Updates

Editor's Note: This page is a summary of news on the Texas Panhandle wildfires for Wednesday, Feb. 28. For the latest news on the blaze, view our live updates file for Thursday, Feb. 29.

The second-largest wildfire in Texas history raged across the state's panhandle along with several other major blazes Wednesday, prompting evacuations, destroying homes and triggering a temporary shutdown of the nation's primary nuclear weapons facility.

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

The fires began Monday but spread quickly the following day as strong winds, dry conditions and record-setting unseasonably high temperatures fueled rapid growth. By Wednesday, the largest blaze, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, stretched across 850,000 acres – about 1,300 square miles – through several counties and into neighboring Oklahoma, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire, which is slightly bigger than the state of Rhode Island, is among the largest wildfires the state has ever seen, only behind the 2006 Amarillo East Complex fires that claimed 12 lives and burned more than 900,000 acres.

To the south, the Windy Deuce Fire burned 142,000 acres of land, and 30% of the fire has been contained as of Wednesday evening, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Another blaze, the Grape Vine Creek Fire, northeast of Amarillo, Texas, burned 30,000 acres and was 60% contained.

Authorities have not said what might have caused the fires that ripped through sparsely populated counties set amid vast, high plains.

Hemphill County Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Kendall said about 40 homes were burned around the perimeter of Canadian, a rural town northeast of Amarillo, Texas, but no buildings were lost inside the community. Kendell said the charred terrain looked “like a moonscape."

He also said he saw “hundreds of cattle just dead, laying in the fields.”

Tresea Rankin filmed her home burning in Canadian. “Thirty-eight years of memories, that’s what you were thinking,” Rankin said. “Two of my kids were married there ... But you know, it’s OK, the memories won’t go away.”

White House press secretary Karen Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that President Joe Biden is receiving regular updates on the fires.

"We are grateful for the brave firefighters and first responders who are working to protect people and save lives," Jean-Pierre said. "And we urge everyone in the affected area to remain vigilant and heed the warnings of local officials, especially those who have been ordered to evacuate."

The administration remains in contact with state and local officials and stands ready to provide further support as needed, she said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has issued two fire management assistance grants to Texas, and one to Oklahoma.

The intense blazes in Texas were among several wild weather events happening across the country, including tornadoes in Illinois and a swath of record-high temperatures in the eastern half of the nation.

Temperatures dropped in the region on Wednesday and a light mix of rain and snow was expected overnight, the National Weather Service said.


  The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has required the City of Fritch's public water system to notify all customers to boil their water before using it because of a "loss in electricity that caused reduced distribution system pressure," according to a post on Facebook by the city.

 The wildfires have left thousands of people without power. According to a database maintained by USA TODAY, more than 18,000 utility customers in Texas were without power Wednesday afternoon.

 Several main roads and highways in the Texas Panhandle, which were blocked off Tuesday as the wildfires were quickly expanding, remain closed.

 Sid Miller, commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture, said in a statement that he's "deeply concerned" about the wildfires' impact on the state's agricultural industry. "We stand in solidarity with our farmers and ranchers facing loss and destruction," Miller said. "Our thoughts are with them during this challenging time, and we're committed to supporting their recovery efforts every step of the way."

One death confirmed in Texas fires

Authorities confirmed one death amid a dayslong blaze that burned through the panhandle. 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 to locate her. Quesada said deputies told his uncle on Wednesday they had found Blankenship’s remains in her burned home.

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

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

'Some homes were completely lost'

Hutchinson County Emergency Management spokesperson Deidra Thomas answered questions from residents during a Facebook livestream on Wednesday and said several homes in Fritch, a small city some 35 miles north of Amarillo, have been completely destroyed and the area remains unsafe.

"I don't think a lot of folks that live in the Fritch area probably are going to be prepared for what they're going to see as they pull into town," she said. "Some homes were completely lost..."

Thomas said the main road leading into Fritch was backed up with residents who were not allowed into the city because in many areas, especially across the south, fires were still active.

"They can't even see house numbers," she said of first responders, adding that emergency officials are focused on damage control and assessment. "We have not really had a chance to assess all the damage and figure out where to start."

Multiple towns, cities remain under evacuation orders

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties to enable critical resources to be deployed to areas impacted by the wildfires. The Smokehouse Creek fire is the largest of the blazes that ripped across the region, but it is among 13 fires that started on Monday.

While some residents were told they could return to their homes, several towns remain under mandatory evacuations. The Smokehouse Creek Fire forced evacuations in the cities of Hemphill County, which sits about a hundred miles northeast of Amarillo. Several school districts throughout the country canceled classes for Wednesday.

In this photo provided by the Flower Mound, Texas, Fire Department, firefighters respond to a fire in the Texas Panhandle on Feb. 27, 2024.
In this photo provided by the Flower Mound, Texas, Fire Department, firefighters respond to a fire in the Texas Panhandle on Feb. 27, 2024.

Pantex Plant reopens after temporary shutdown

The Windy Deuce fire triggered the Pantex Plant − the nation's primary nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility about 17 miles northeast of Amarillo − to shut down and evacuate Tuesday evening. The plant said in a post on X that fire barriers were being built "to protect plant facilities."

On Wednesday, the facility announced it will reopen for normal operations.

The plant performs research and development in high explosives and serves as an interim storage site for plutonium pits removed from dismantled weapons, according to the Department of Energy. The roughly 16,000-acre site, which includes a huge buffer zone, is jointly operated by a contractor and Sandia National Laboratory on land owned by the energy department and Texas Tech University, according to Texas Health and Human Services.

Texas wildfires force evacuations, respiratory warnings

Mandatory evacuations are in effect in more than a half dozen Texas towns, the weather service said. The city of Canadian had been asked to shelter in place and several agencies were sending crews to help protect structures against the advancing flames, according to one of the coordination center updates. By Tuesday evening, fire crews were able to place a control line around Canadian to try to protect the town, but officials also warned that the fire had shown the ability to send burning embers over long distances.

Though the fire was 20 to 25 miles north of Amarillo, Texas, the weather service said, strong north winds are blowing a blanket of smoke into Amarillo, creating hazardous conditions for those with respiratory conditions.

Texas has seen record-high temperatures this week and parts of the panhandle are "abnormally dry," according to the National Drought Monitor. Sixty-three counties in the state have burn bans in place, according to the fire service.

Large fires also are burning in Nebraska and Oklahoma. Evacuations were in effect in Northwestern Oklahoma, where one Texas wildfire doubled in size and crossed into the state on Tuesday, reported The Oklahoman, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Other wildfires also had been reported in the state over the past few days.

Contributing: Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas fires updates: Blaze grows into second-largest in state history