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Second-Largest Wildfire in Texas History Prompts Evacuation Orders

The Smokehouse Creek Fire had grown five times its original size in 24 hours, fueled by dry conditions and strong winds.

Smoke rises on the roadway in Hutchinson County, Texas, on February 28, 2024.

Texas officials recorded the state’s second-largest wildfire in its history on Tuesday and into early Wednesday as several fast-moving blazes formed what one resident called a “ring of fire” around her town in the Panhandle and forced a temporary closure of a nuclear weapons facility.

The Texas A&M Forest Service said early Wednesday that the main blaze, dubbed the Smokehouse Creek Fire, had burned through nearly 800 square miles since sparking on Monday — growing to five times its original size in about 24 hours.

Evacuation orders were issued for several Panhandle towns northeast of Amarillo and for parts of the city, with residents instructed to go to a high school gym and youth center. Authorities at the Pantex Plant, the United States’ main nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility, temporarily evacuated nonessential employees on Tuesday night while firefighters remained on the premises.

The plant was reopened “for normal day shift operations” on Wednesday morning.

A hospital system in the town of Canadian was also forced to evacuate patients and staff.

The Forest Service said the uncontrolled fire and its rapid spread was fueled by dry conditions and strong winds. Erin O’Connor, a spokesperson for the service, told The New York Times that wind conditions were expected to “moderate a little bit” late Wednesday and Thursday, hopefully giving firefighters a chance to get the blaze under control before humidity was expected to drop again on Friday.

“It is a significant fire,” O’Connor said. “It looks alarming how quickly it is spreading.”

The service told ABC News that wind gusts up to 60 miles per hour helped the flames to grow as high as 20 feet in the region’s dry grasses, reporting that the Smokehouse Creek Fire was 0% contained as of Wednesday morning and warning of “extreme fire behavior.”

Videos on social media showed thick smoke that obstructed drivers’ ability to see roads as flames engulfed nearby brush.

The U.S. Drought Monitor reported that a swathe of the Panhandle was experiencing “abnormally dry” conditions, leaving grasses vulnerable to potential wildfire spread. Scientists have warned that planetary heating and higher average global temperatures has increased the risk and severity of drought conditions.

NextGen America, a progressive voter mobilization group, called the wildfires “the climate crisis in action” and demanded an end to climate denial and delay by fossil fuel giants and lawmakers.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties to activate state rescue crews and support local firefighters.

An unknown number of homes were damaged in the Panhandle, including more than 40 in the city of Fritch.

The wildfires took hold of the region as Swiss reinsurance company Re reported the climate crisis and severe weather events is costing the U.S. annual economic losses of $97 billion.

A “Cost of Inaction Ticker” for the U.S. was updated last week based on federal data, showing that the 28 disasters that caused at least $1 billion in damage last year cost Americans $92.9 billion, or $2,945.84 per second.

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