Updated Feb 28, 2024 - Energy & Environment

Wildfire in Texas Panhandle explodes into state's second-largest blaze

A gif of satellite images of the Smoke House Creek Fire burning over the Texas-Oklahoma border on Tuesday.

A gif of satellite images of the Smokehouse Creek Fire burning over the Texas-Oklahoma border on Tuesday. Satellite images: NOAA/NASA

Texas' massive Smokehouse Creek Fire exploded into the state's second-largest wildfire on Wednesday after forcing the evacuation of residents and workers at a nuclear facility on Tuesday.

The big picture: The sprawling wildfire, burning from the Texas town of Stinnett into parts of neighboring Oklahoma, was 3% contained as it burned across some 850,000 acres on Wednesday afternoon, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties in response to the Smokehouse Creek Fire and several other wildfires burning in the Panhandle.

Details: The Smokehouse Creek Fire is a cluster of several different fires that have spread across multiple counties in northeastern Texas and western Oklahoma.

  • It started around two days ago in Hutchinson County, Texas, and was estimated to have been 40,000 acres in size when Texas A&M Forest Service received a request for assistance.
  • The blaze grew from 100,000 acres to 500,000 acres in less than a day, averaging around 20,000 acres burned every hour between Tuesday and Wednesday morning.
  • It was driven by the dry, windy and unseasonably warm conditions that have recently hit the region, the result of a freak summer-like warmup and a powerhouse Arctic cold front.

Zoom out: South of the Smokehouse Creek Fire, the Grape Vine Creek Fire has grown to an estimated 30,000 acres and is 60% contained.

  • Several houses were destroyed in the Texas town of Fritch, home to around 1,800 people, from the 90,000-acre Windy Deuce Fire, which is burning north of Amarillo around Lake Meredith.
  • In total, at least five active fires remain uncontained across the region, according to InciWeb.

Threat level: Acreage burned estimates are preliminary, but Smokehouse Creek is already much bigger than the state's previous second-largest wildfire, the 366,000-acre Big Country Fire in 1988.

  • The largest fire in Texas history was the East Amarillo Complex, which torched 907,245 acres in 2006.

State of play: Critical fire weather this week has stretched across from the Texas Panhandle into Oklahoma.

  • Mandatory evacuation orders were issued on Tuesday for residents in an area that included the town of Canadian, north of Amarillo.
  • The Pantex Plant, the primary U.S. nuclear weapons assembly and disassembly facility that's located near Amarillo, suspended operations and evacuated nonessential staff as a precaution due to a fire north of the facility.
  • "All employees have been accounted for and non-essential personnel are no longer on-site," Pantex said in a Tuesday night Facebook post.
  • Operations at the facility returned to normal on Wednesday and there was "no imminent wildfire threat to the plant at this time," Pantex wrote in a Wednesday afternoon update on Facebook.

What we're watching: Conditions were expected to improve on Wednesday and Thursday as temperatures were expected to dip, winds die down and humidity increases from a weak low-pressure system moving in. Snow is also potentially arriving in parts of the region.

  • However, warmer weather is forecast to return this weekend.

Between the lines: Studies show that climate change is leading to larger, more frequent wildfires.

Go deeper: Oregon's Western Cascades may see more wildfires

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details throughout.

Go deeper