Texas battles its largest wildfire ever

The National Weather Service has issued red flag fire warnings across much of the central US.

The National Weather Service has issued red flag fire warnings across much of the central US. Photo: Getty

Fire crews are fighting to contain a wildfire that’s grown to the largest in Texas history after scorching close to 405,000 hectares of grassland and timber, and destroying homes in small towns in the Panhandle region.

The blaze, dubbed the Smokehouse Creek Fire, had doubled in size since Wednesday and was 3 per cent contained on Thursday morning, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Firefighters used a brief lull in the strong winds that have swept the sparsely populated area in recent days to erect barriers and douse hot spots of downed trees and thick grass.

Rain and snow falling in the area on Thursday offered a “shot of moisture” before the air dries out on Friday and high winds return over the weekend, said Steve Hannah, an Amarillo-based meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire has overtaken a 2006 fire as the most expansive in state history.

While Texas is in midst of its natural fire season – running from January through May – the sheer size of the Smokehouse Creek blaze makes it an outlier, said Flavio Lehner, who teaches atmospheric science at Cornell University.

He says human-driven climate change is a contributing factor, although a specific cause has yet to be identified by authorities.

“It’s warmer than it has been in the past, and that makes the vegetation drier, you add in the lack of rainfall, and that makes the conditions right for fire,” Lehner said.

The number of structures destroyed or people evacuated was also unclear, but dozens of homes have been levelled. The fire has claimed at least one fatality, according to Texas A&M. The victim was described by local media as an 83-year-old woman in Hutchinson County, northeast of Amarillo.

Several smaller wildfires were burning in other parts of the Panhandle. The next largest, the Windy Deuce fire, was 30 per cent contained on Thursday, according to Texas A&M.

On Tuesday, the Windy Deuce had crept to within a few miles of the US Energy Department’s Pantex plant, the nation’s primary nuclear weapons assembly facility, located near Amarillo. That prompted officials to evacuate non-essential personnel and suspend operations.

But the leading edge of that blaze shifted to the north and west, away from Pantex, on Wednesday, allowing routine activities at the plant to resume.

“Operations at the Pantex Plant returned to normal Wednesday,” the facility said in an online notice. “There is no imminent wildfire threat to the plant at this time.”

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