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Why the Texas Panhandle is seeing such explosive wildfires right now

Texas A&M Forest Service via Getty Images

(AMARILLO, Texas) — Multiple fires are impacting the Texas Panhandle, including what has quickly grown to become the second-largest wildfire in Texas history.


Gov. Greg Abbott declared a disaster declaration for 60 counties on Tuesday due to “widespread wildfire activity throughout the state.” The largest of the blazes — the Smokehouse Creek Fire — has burned an estimated 850,000 acres since initially reported on Monday and was 3% contained as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

The massive blaze is the second-largest wildfire in the state’s history, with Texas A&M Forest Service records going back to 1988. The largest fire in the state’s history is the East Amarillo Complex of 2006, which burned 907,245 acres.

The Texas A&M Forest Service is also monitoring several other wildfires in the region. They include the Windy Deuce Fire, which is an estimated 90,000 acres and 25% contained as of midday Wednesday, and the Grapevine Creek Fire, which is an estimated 30,000 acres and 60% contained as of Tuesday night. The agency alerted the public about both fires on Monday.

Several factors came together to produce an extreme wildfire event in the area, according to the National Weather Service.

Tough terrain with fuel to burn

The Smokehouse Creek Fire began in the Canadian River Valley, more rugged terrain than the flat area of the Texas Panhandle that is harder to access, according to Mike Gittinger, head meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Amarillo.

“The initial fire attack by firefighters was delayed due to the topography,” Gittinger told ABC News. “Also, that area has more vegetation, since it’s near the river, not just grassland, hence more fuel for burning.”

Wet conditions over the spring and summer last year means more fuel to burn now, Gittinger said.

“Parts of the Texas Panhandle received up to 13 inches of rain in just 30 days — this was months worth of rain for the area,” Gittinger said. “Due to this factor, vegetation was able to grow and be available to burn with this fire.”

Hot, dry, windy conditions

February is shaping up to be one of the top-10 warmest on record for Amarillo. The temperature on Monday in Amarillo hit a record 82 degrees — helping dry things out more and enhance the fire.

Winds gusted to 50 mph on Monday and 70 mph on Tuesday in the Amarillo area, along with very low relative humidity, which also helped the fire spread.

Climatologically speaking, the Texas Panhandle is entering the peak of its wildfire season — March and April. At this time of the year, the vegetation was dormant, due to the earlier winter freeze, so it was extra dry.

Forecast

As the Smokehouse Creek Fire burns largely out of control, the next 48 hours are expected to see improving conditions — including lighter winds with increased humidity and a chance for rain and snow.

By this weekend, winds are expected to increase once again — gusting 30 to 45 mph — and temperatures are expected to return into the 70s, well above the average of 59 degrees. However, overall fire weather conditions are forecast to not be as critical.

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