Widespread Wildfires Force Evacuations in High Plains as Hundreds of Thousands of Acres Affected

Feb 29, 2024

Massive wildfires continue to spread in the High Plains and one is already the second largest in Texas history.

"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.

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 on Tuesday. The wildfires also have spread into Oklahoma. Various highways have been closed in areas affected by fires, and county emergency officials worked into the night to advise of evacuation routes, emergency shelters or even telling people to shelter in place. In some communities, such as in Canadian, Texas, hospital patients as well as people from residential care facilities had to be evacuated.

The largest of the active fires in the High Plains, the Smokehouse Creek fire in Hutchinson County in the Texas Panhandle, started on Monday and had consumed an estimated 250,000 acres by Tuesday evening. By Wednesday morning it had spread to 500,000 acres, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service with zero contained. This made it the second largest fire in Texas history. On Tuesday the one fire alone was described by some media as spreading the equivalent of 150 football fields per minute, and already burned more than all of fires combined in Texas in 2023. The fire had started in tall grass with high winds fanning the flames.

The situation was expected to grow worse, with the size of fires rapidly increasing in areas that were at times have been under a red flag warning with high winds, dryness and dewpoints in the teens or single digits already in place or expected overnight in parts of the High Plains.

Other large fires in the Panhandle Tuesday night included the Grape Vine Creek fire, near Pampa in Gray County at 30,000 acres, about 20% contained; and the Windy Deuce fire in Moore County at 38,000 acres and also about 20% contained.

As the fire spread in Texas, several towns received mandatory or voluntary evacuation notices or people were told to shelter in place in some situations.


Abbott's posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that, "According to the Texas A&M Forest Service, dry conditions and above-normal temperatures resulting in areas of the state facing an increased risk of wildfire. Paired with increased wind speeds, these areas are supportive of wildfire activity. The Texas A&M Forest Service reports that several large wildfires ignited yesterday (Monday) under warm, dry, and windy conditions across the Texas Panhandle.

"Strong forecasted winds will likely impact these wildfires, causing them to grow larger. There is a possibility for wildfire activity to occur where an abundant of dormant grasses are present on the landscape in areas near or around them, including the Panhandle, South Plains, Texoma, and Permian Basin regions. Portions of East Texas also face increased wildfire risk amid active burns."


In Texas, the Moore County Sheriff's Office late Tuesday evening posted on Facebook that "Firefighters throughout the areas are still working active uncontrolled fires. Moore County Deputies are assisting Hutchinson County with evacuation. We have seen tragedy today and we have seen miracles. Today was a historic event we hope never happens again. The panhandle needs prayers."

Oklahoma also battled the fast-spreading fires. According to Roger Mills County Emergency Management in Oklahoma, the Smokehouse Creek fire had crossed the state line and moved into the county, leading to evacuations of Durham and Crawford. With dozens of wildfires in the state by even Monday night, Oklahoma already has had evacuations in several counties, temporary shelters set up, and emergency declarations.

Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food & Forestry Secretary Blayne Arthur told DTN Tuesday night, "We have had fires across the state ... buildings and cattle lost. Won't have totals on losses until fires are more contained."

On social media Tuesday there were reports of ranches affected by the fires and videos of the desperate attempts to move livestock to safety.

The Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association is urging people to donate money to help aid victims on ranchers who are being affected by the wildfires.


Nebraska also saw how quickly a wildfire could spread. According to state officials, on Monday morning near North Platte a mower sparked a fire less than 10 miles from the city, damaging homes and other buildings.

Within 24 hours, the Betty's Way fire raced through 71,000 acres of land in Lincoln and Custer counties, with 15 volunteer fire departments in the area trying to keep the fire from spreading. By late Tuesday, it was about 70% contained.

According to Associated Press, "by late Monday, Gov. Jim Pillen declared a state disaster, which provided additional help from the state Forest Service, Fire Marshal, emergency management agency and other cooperating agencies."


DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick on Monday had written in his blog about the wild swings in temperatures and conditions in the High Plains this week that would increase the potential for wildfires. "While not extreme like in some spring storms, wind gusts over 35 mph will be common in a lot of areas and over 55 mph in the High Plains, down-sloping off the Rocky Mountains. With some drier conditions out there, the winds could elevate the risk of wildfires," he said.

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