Texas Wildfires Reach 1 Million Acres

Donations Needed as Farmers, Ranchers Begin Recovery From Texas Wildfires

A cow's burn injuries, a pile of blackened hay and destroyed machinery show some of the devastation caused by the Smokehouse Creek Fire northwest of Canadian, Texas just outside the city limits. (Photos by Quentin Shieldknight)

Editor's Note: This story was updated near 12:30 p.m. CST Thursday to update the size of the fires in Texas and Oklahoma and one death confirmed. The most recent weather forecast for the region has also been added.

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OMAHA (DTN) -- Early Wednesday, Quentin Shieldknight, who farms in the Texas Panhandle near Spearman, Texas, loaded up hay to take much-needed cattle feed to friends of his in Canadian, Texas who suffered fire damage at their place.

That community was badly hit by what has already become now the largest fire in Texas history as it raced through the state. On Thursday morning, the Smokehouse Creek Fire merged with another fire and is now at 1,079,053 acres in Texas and Oklahoma, or nearly 1,700 square miles. AP noted that "The largest fire recorded in state history was the 2006 East Amarillo Complex fire, which burned about 1,400 square miles (3,630 square kilometers) and resulted in 13 deaths."

Currently one death has been blamed on this week's wildfires, 83-year-old Joyce Blankenship of Stinnett, northeast of Amarillo, Texas.

There are currently as of Thursday morning 23 fires burning in Texas for a total of 1,259,137 acres, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Shieldknight could see how close that fire came to threatening his own farm this week, where he grows corn, cotton, wheat, soybeans and runs red angus cattle. He lives only 20 miles north of the fires.

"There's enough farm ground in places to protect us, but on the western side of our operation where my house is there's a whole bunch of rangeland," he told DTN. He's experienced wildfires in the Panhandle before, but this was different. "You try to prepare yourself for the worst, but it never works," he explained. "This fire, at least on the Texas size, I believe is bigger. We lost way more homes in these fires than last time."

Satellite imagery backs that up, already showing houses and buildings burned in Borger, Canadian, Fritch and Miami. Various media have shown aerial and ground images of burnt homes and farms.

The largest and most dangerous is the Smokehouse Creek Fire, which started Monday in Hutchinson County. It reached 40,000 acres by Tuesday morning. By Tuesday night, it was 250,000 acres. By Wednesday morning, it was 400,000 acres. By later Wednesday, the Smokehouse Creek Fire was 850,000 acres, and now stands almost 1,079,053 acres in Texas and Oklahoma, according to Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry. The fire will continue to grow: Only 3% is contained, as of Thursday. Along with the other fires in Texas this week, by Wednesday night has hit more than 1 million acres burned. (https://tfswildfires.com/…)

LIVESTOCK AFFECTED

Homes weren't the only ones damaged or lost to the flames. Livestock owners are dealing with lost and injured cattle, as well as the loss of feed as valuable grass and hay supplies were burned.

Traveling to his friend's place, Shieldknight got a first-hand look at what the fire left behind. "Areas look like a nuke went off. Cattlemen will need medicine and ointments for burns on cows, too, not just hay," Shieldknight added. "Everyone (is) still fighting this fire and getting cows moved before wind gets going again tomorrow."

He said that ranchers will need to reevaluate the condition of the cattle and horses burned in the fires in the next two weeks. There will also be a need to find feed and evaluate grassland recovery.

"Cattle will possibly need to be pulled out for up to 90 days, then hope we green up quick in the spring," said Shieldknight. "There are other farmers and the ranchers who are taking some of the cattle now because they can feed them in fields with corn stocks and/or they have extra hay. But that won't last until the spring green up starts in the state."

While it still needs to be determined how the fires started in the Texas Panhandle, Shieldknight pointed to the volatile weather conditions the area faced. "It's pretty simple as to what happened. We had a drought two years ago and forced the cows out. Last year we had an abundance of rain and grass but few cows. That allowed a lot of pastures to grow and all it took was one spark of any kind to start it in 80-degree weather and 60-mph winds to spread it," said Shieldknight.

FIRE HIT HARD

In Roberts County, people hit by the fires were working to recover from the devastating impact by strongly supporting each other.

"It has hit us hard," Nancy Gill, from Miami, Texas, told DTN Wednesday afternoon. "Right now, we are just trying to assess the damage, continue to fight fires and help the community." The small close-knit ranching community of Miami and other nearby towns have suffered significant loss. Livestock, buildings, equipment, homes, and pastureland have been affected.

"Everyone is extremely exhausted and trying to wrap their minds around everything," said Gill, whose family ranches in the fire area northeast of Amarillo.

While Gill's family didn't lose any buildings, they have several neighbors who have lost homes, barns, equipment, vehicles, hay, feed, tack and more.

"I don't think people understand the damage and there are still multiple live fires," she said. "Producers are assessing the damage and trying to navigate where to move cattle. The amount of support we have received statewide has been unbelievable."

(See more on how communities were dealing with the outbreak of fires Tuesday at https://www.dtnpf.com/….)

HAY, FEED, FENCING SUPPLIES NEEDED

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service on Thursday said donations of hay, feed, fencing supplies, cow feed and milk replacer are needed to support livestock owners affected by the wildfires.

The extension service said it is "establishing Animal Supply Points in several locations in the region to accept the donations. The purpose of the Animal Supply Point is to meet area producers' most critical needs such as providing feed for cattle while they assess their individual operation's other needs."

"These donations will go directly to those who need them as soon as possible," said Monty Dozier, AgriLife Extension Disaster Assessment Recovery, DAR, program director, Bryan-College Station. "Texans are known for their generosity and deep values of Texas agriculture during times of need. This is certainly a situation where our neighbors and friends are needing assistance after these fires have threatened their livelihoods."

See more on how to donate hay, feed or fencing materials, or have equipment to help haul hay, go to: https://agrilifetoday.tamu.edu/….

TEXAS GOVERNMENT REACTION

"As Texas Agriculture Commissioner, I am deeply concerned about the devastating wildfires raging through the Texas Panhandle. These fires not only threaten lives and property but also have a significant impact on our agriculture industry. We stand in solidarity with our farmers and ranchers facing loss and destruction. Our thoughts are with them during this challenging time, and we're committed to supporting their recovery efforts every step of the way," said a statement released by Commissioner Sid Miller on Wednesday.

A day earlier, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties in his state as widespread wildfires destroyed homes and structures and led to a mix of mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders for several towns. Some of those orders remained in place on Wednesday, although in some places people were allowed to return to their homes.

Firefighters, farmers, ranchers, and community members continue to help each other with hope to extinguish all the fires soon. The Texas A&M Forest Service posted pictures to social media of dozers and motor graders working to develop containment lines around some of the wildfires, such as in Oldham County.

By late Wednesday, the Forest Service raised its Wildland Fire Preparedness Level to Level 3 "due to an increase in large, active wildfires and increased resource commitment. The fire environment is expected to support wildlife activity over the next few weeks."

DTN FORECAST SEES MORE WILDFIRE THREAT

DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick warned that the strong winds that have caused expanded wildfires in the region could be replicated over the weekend.

Looking closer at the forecast for the Central and Southern Plains, DTN Meteorologist Teresa Wells said at noon Thursday that, "Through Thursday into early Friday, a weaker system will provide some light precipitation to the Southern Plains which could help slow the pace of wildfires spreading in the Texas Panhandle. Yet, conditions do not look favorable for reducing the wildfire risk this weekend as dry, warm, and breezy conditions will redevelop. Through the first half of next week, precipitation will favor the eastern half of the region and above normal temperatures are expected. The weather pattern could shift by late next week or next weekend as a large system from the West moves into the Plains and below-normal temperatures could return."

As for today, fire danger is also seen in parts of the Midwest. "Portions of Iowa, eastern Nebraska, and northern Kansas will see dry and breezy conditions today, promoting a higher risk for wildfires." The National Weather Service has red flag warnings out for those states because of highs in the upper 50s Fahrenheit, wind gusts 30-40 mph and relative humidity as low as 10-20%.

HIGH PLAINS HIT BY FIRES

As fires continued to spread through the High Plains this week, the Smokehouse Creek fire isn't the only one with little containment.

In Texas, some of the other fires included Windy Deuce fire in Moore County which had grown by Thursday noon to 142,000 acres and now 50% contained; the Grape Vine Creek fire in Gray County was 30,000 acres and 60% contained.

The Oklahoma government in its wildfire situation update issued late Wednesday afternoon said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has approved the state's request for a Fire Management Assistance Grants (FMAG) for the Catesby Fire in Ellis County.

"The FMAG may help reimburse local governments, volunteer fire departments and other first responders for costs associated with responding to the fires. The authorization makes FEMA funding available to reimburse 75% of state, local and tribal government eligible firefighting costs for the designated fires. Federal fire management assistance is provided through the President's Disaster Relief Fund," it said.

The Oklahoma update also noted houses and numerous additional structures being lost in various counties to fires. In its Fire Situation Report, (https://ag.ok.gov/…) the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry provided its list of fires within and outside of the Oklahoma Forestry Services Protection area and how much they were contained. This included the Slapout Fire in Beaver County with 26,048 acres and 22% containment; the Catesby Fire in Ellis County with 90,570 acres and 18% contained; and the Smokehouse Creek Fire which had spread into Oklahoma from Texas.

Oklahoma noted that there was reduced fire danger today and an opportunity to improve containment of more than 30 large wildfires in the state. " However, it added that "fire danger will quickly rebound into the weekend with another fire-effective weather pattern over dry, dormant fuels Saturday though Monday emphasizing another round of significant fire potential on Sunday focused in western/northwestern Oklahoma." The government outlook added, "Following an opportunity to improve containment on current wildfires and equipment rehab today, fire danger ramps up into the weekend. Dryline intrusion, above normal temperatures, an approaching cold front form a synoptic pattern supporting increasing concern for significant fire occurrence in northwestern/western Oklahoma. Sunday will present the most concerning alignment in the fire environment for significant fire development given any ignition."

WEATHER CONDITIONS FOR FIRES

While the wildfires already have been stunning in their impact -- the Smokehouse Creek Fire within three days consumed more acres than all the wildfires together burned in Texas in 2023 -- DTT's Baranick said the amazing thing about the weather situation is that it's not at all perfect for producing wildfires.

"Wildfires feed on a bunch of dead vegetation over dry soils with dry atmospheric conditions and strong winds to pump in oxygen and help the fire move," he said. "Only the atmospheric components have been observed this week. But the background conditions we typically look for that would increase fire risks have not."

Baranick said the northern Texas Panhandle has had more precipitation this winter than normal. Amarillo, which is about 50 miles to the southwest of the large Smokehouse Creek fire, received 1.77 inches of rain in December, 1.02 inches of rain in January, and 0.52 inches in February, for a total of 3.31 inches for the season.

"Typically, Amarillo only receives 1.79 inches of rain over the entire winter season, so Amarillo has received twice as much rainfall as normal," Baranick said. "That has knocked down the drought in the region and there is currently none on the U.S. Drought Monitor for this part of the country," he said.

"In fact, with the remaining drought listed on the map for the Central and Southern Plains, all of it is labeled with a large "L" -- meaning it is long-term drought and rainfall deficits, rather than short-term drought that would increase wildfire risks."

He went on. "Now, the seasonal total of 3.31 inches is not all that heavy anyway, so let's take a look at the soil moisture. Coincidentally, because of the heavier rain, soil moisture is above normal for this time of year. But that doesn't mean that soils are not dry. Actual soil moisture in the region is about half of what it is in the Midwest and closer to a third of the water available in the Southeast states, so they are still dry compared to more humid climates," Baranick said.

"But it was the overall weather conditions that caused the most important reason the fires were able to grow so quickly. It has been very warm in the Texas Panhandle for the last week, with high temperatures hitting 80 degrees Fahrenheit or more four times in the last 10 days. That would spur plant growth and a reduction in soil moisture. Add to it that temperatures on Monday, Feb. 26 hit a high of 82 F while the relative humidity fell below 20% and winds gusted in the 45-60 mph range during the middle of the day and that allowed the fire to get started.

"Strong winds continued through Tuesday evening in the same general range before quieting down Monday night. A sharp dryline was the cause for the initial conditions. Winds flowing down off of the southern Rockies and through West Texas and much of the Plains on Monday caused the winds to increase and the humidity to fall through Tuesday afternoon. A strong cold front moved through on Tuesday evening which eventually got the winds to calm down. West Texas is usually a windy place when these dryline events happen, and are a frequent cause of concern for wildfires," he said.

"But the extent of the ones currently going on, and the Smokehouse Creek fire in particular, are alarming. Smaller fires would make more sense, given the more unfavorable background conditions. But that just goes to show that when weather conditions for creating/sustaining/growing wildfires occur, they shouldn't be ignored."

RANCH SUPPLY STORE HELPS OUT

Shieldknight said that Canadian AH&N Ranch Supply in Canadian, Texas will once again be a fire relief supply point. On its Facebook page, the company wrote, "Phones and electricity are still out, but we are up and running the best we can." Donations can be mailed to Fire Relief Fund, P.O. Box 300, Canadian, TX 79014, given in person at Canadian AH&N, or by telephone (806)282-9534. For more information, people are encouraged to phone. People who wished to donate hay were encouraged to call the number first, find out where are people who need the hay, and then it could be delivered more efficiently to cattle owners. Already on Friday someone posted on the company's Facebook page they were looking for trucks to load 600 round bales in Denver to go to Wheeler (Texas) "to help these ranchers."

HOW TO HELP RANCHERS, CATTLE PRODUCERS

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service has set up a website at https://agrilifetoday.tamu.edu/… to help provide information on donating hay, feed or fencing materials or even on how to make monetary contributions. "AgriLife Extension will provide more educational information as it becomes available on the losses and needs of those affected by the wildfires," the site said.

See more tips on how to protect yourself in case of wildfires, as well as homes, barns, agriculture production facilities, crops and livestock by going to https://texashelp.tamu.edu/….

DONATIONS URGED TO HELP RANCHERS

Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association is urging donors to give to the TSCRA Disaster Relief Fund amid widespread wildfires affecting the Texas Panhandle and Western Oklahoma. Donations will go on to aid victims of the ongoing natural disasters, the organization said. The TSCRA Disaster Relief Fund is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides support for cattle raisers in Texas and Oklahoma who are victims of a natural disaster. All contributions to the TSCRA Disaster Relief Fund are tax deductible. See https://tscra.org/….

DTN Senior Livestock Editor Jennifer Carrico contributed to this story.

Elaine Shein can be reached at elaine.shein@dtn.com

Follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter, @elaineshein

Mary Kennedy can be reached at mary.kennedy@dtn.com

Follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter, @MaryCKenn

Jennifer Carrico can be reached at jennifer.carrico@dtn.com

Follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter, @JennCattleGal