Dry, Windy Weather Could Spread Texas Wildfires Through Panhandle and Oklahoma

Wildfires burning out of control in the Texas Panhandle have left a path of devastation, with up to 500 structures destroyed as of Friday and ranchers facing crippling losses of cattle and grazing lands. Officials warned that warm, windy and dry weather was expected to return over the weekend and could fan the flames.

“When you look at the damages that have occurred here, it’s just completely gone, nothing left but ashes on the ground,” Gov. Greg Abbott said as he traveled to the region to survey the damage. “Those who are affected by this have gone through utter devastation.”

The National Weather Service forecast “critical fire weather conditions” on Saturday and Sunday, and urged residents to refrain from outdoor activities that might generate sparks or flames over the weekend, which includes Texas Independence Day on Saturday.

Already, one death has been confirmed, a second has been reported by family members and several firefighters have been injured, officials said.

New questions were being raised about the origins of the biggest blaze, known as the Smokehouse Creek fire, which has charred at least 1,075,000 acres of land and become the largest wildfire on record in Texas history.

Lawyers for property insurers and landowners have asked an electric company to preserve a fallen power pole that they believe could have ignited the fire, which remained only 15 percent contained on Friday.

Salem Abraham, who owns 3,500 acres of hay land that burned outside of Canadian, Texas, said he and several other landowners were finalizing a lawsuit that they expected to file later on Friday against the electric company, Xcel Energy, which operates power lines throughout the area.

He said that investigators sent by his lawyers had located a downed pole outside of the town of Stinnett, Texas, that showed signs of having been pushed over by the high winds on Monday, putting live electricity in contact with dry brush and grass.

State officials have said they are still investigating the cause of the fire and did not comment directly on the landowners’ claims. Xcel Energy have notified regulators of the lawyers’ letter.

“We will cooperate with officials while conducting our own investigations to determine the causes of the fires,” the company said in a statement on Friday.

Mr. Abbott said early assessments suggested that about 400 to 500 structures had been destroyed, and he cautioned that the number could rise as surveys continued.

W. Nim Kidd, the chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said that several firefighters and other emergency workers had been injured.

Mr. Abbott also warned of the weather conditions expected over the next couple of days.

“Everybody needs to understand that we face enormous potential fire dangers as we head into this weekend,” he said. “No one can let down their guard, everyone must remain very vigilant.”

A brief period of light precipitation slowed expansion of the fires on Thursday and Friday, but the forecast for dry, windy weather prompted warnings for Saturday afternoon through Sunday evening, covering the Panhandle region and nearby parts of Oklahoma. Wildfires in that state have already caused “heart-wrenching devastation,” according to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture.

Five fires were still active in the area as of Friday afternoon, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. Three of them were more than 50 percent contained, the authorities said.

The Panhandle is cattle country, and ranchers have been able to do little but watch as the grasslands that their livestock rely on for food have been burned. Thousands of cattle may have died in the blazes or been so badly injured that they would have to be killed, the authorities said.

As of Friday afternoon, just over 500 customers in Hemphill County, one of the hardest hit by the wildfires this week, were without power, according to PowerOutage.us. On Wednesday, North Plains Electric Cooperative said in a statement that it had around 115 miles of power lines to rebuild.

“Our goal is to have ALL that are without power restored by Monday, March 4,” the company said.

Mr. Abbott granted temporary waivers on Thursday to three state agencies, freeing them to use all available resources to support communities affected by the fires.

In a speech on Thursday at the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, President Biden said that he had deployed federal resources to help fight the flames, in response to requests from state officials. He urged residents of the area near the fires to listen to their local officials.

“When disasters strike, there’s no red state or blue state where I come from,” Mr. Biden said, adding, “We’re standing with everyone, everyone affected by these wildfires, and we’re going to continue to help you respond and recover.”

Other areas were also affected by wildfires this week.

In Nebraska, a wildfire burned over 70,000 acres, but as of Thursday the fire was 98 percent contained, according to the state’s Emergency Management Agency.

An initial damage assessment showed that the fire had destroyed four homes and “countless outbuilding and agricultural infrastructure,” the agency said. No fatalities or injuries had been reported.

In Kansas, the forest service responded to a large fire in Saline County on Thursday. Local officials issued an evacuation notice for residents in the afternoon, but it was lifted about an hour later. Firefighters were still in the area to prevent further problems, county officials said on Thursday.

Ivan Penn contributed reporting.

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