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Expanding wildfires force Texas nuclear facility to pause operations

In this photo provided by the Flower Mound, Texas, Fire Department, Flower Mound firefighters respond to a fire in the Texas Panhandle, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.
AP
In this photo provided by the Flower Mound, Texas, Fire Department, Flower Mound firefighters respond to a fire in the Texas Panhandle, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024.

Updated February 28, 2024 at 5:42 AM ET

A series of wildfires swept across the Texas Panhandle early Wednesday, prompting evacuations, cutting off power to thousands, and forcing at least the temporary shutdown of a nuclear weapons facility as strong winds, dry grass and unseasonably warm temperatures fed the blazes.

An unknown number of homes and other structures in Hutchinson County were damaged or destroyed, local emergency officials said. The main facility that assembles and disassembles America's nuclear arsenal shut down its operations Tuesday night but said it would reopen for normal operations on Wednesday

"We have evacuated our personnel, non-essential personnel from the site, just in an abundance of caution," Laef Pendergraft, a spokesperson for National Nuclear Security Administration's Production Office at Pantex, said during a news conference. "But we do have a well-equipped fire department that has trained for these scenarios, that is on-site and watching and ready should any kind of real emergency arise on the plant site."

Early Wednesday Pantex posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the plant "is open for normal day shift operations" and that all personnel were to report for duty according to their assigned schedule.

Pantex is about 17 miles northeast of Amarillo and some 320 miles northwest of Dallas. Since 1975 it has been the U.S. main assembly and disassembly site for its atomic bombs. It assembled the last new bomb in 1991 while disassembling thousands.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties as the largest blaze, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, burned nearly 400 square miles, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. That is more than twice its size since the fire sparked Monday.

Authorities have not said what might have caused the blaze, which tore through sparsely populated counties surrounded by rolling plains.

"Texans are urged to limit activities that could create sparks and take precautions to keep their loved ones safe," Abbott said.

The weather forecast provided some hope for firefighters — cooler temperatures, less wind and possibly rain on Thursday. But for now, the situation was dire in some areas.

In Borger, a community of about 13,000 roughly 25 miles north of Pantex, Hutchinson County emergency management services personnel planned a convoy to take evacuees from one shelter to another ahead of expected power outages and overnight temperatures in the 20s.

As the evacuation orders mounted, county and city officials live-streamed on Facebook and tried to answer questions from panicked residents. Officials implored them to turn on their cellphones' emergency alerts and be ready to evacuate immediately. They described some roads as having fire on both sides and said resources were being stretched to their limit.

People posted in the Facebook chat about their streets and communities, hoping for good news but more often the answer was either that an area had suffered damage or there wasn't any indication yet of how it had fared.

Texas state Sen. Kevin Sparks said an evacuation order was issued for Canadian, a town of about 2,000 about 100 miles northeast of Amarillo. Later Tuesday, the Hemphill County Sheriff's Office urged anyone who remained in Canadian to shelter in place or at the high school gym because roads were closed.

Evacuations were also ordered in nearby Miami, and schools in Canadian and Miami announced closures Wednesday. East of Canadian, fire officials across the border in the area of Durham, Oklahoma, also encouraged people to evacuate because of the fire.

Evacuations were also happening in Skellytown, Wheeler, Allison and Briscoe, according to the National Weather Service in Amarillo.

About 40 miles southwest of Canadian, city officials in Pampa on Facebook suggested that residents evacuate to the south and said buses were available. Officials said personnel were still fighting the fire Tuesday night but that residents of Pampa could return home.

"They were able to get the fire stopped north of town," weather service officials said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

To the west, at least some residents in the small city of Fritch in Hutchinson County were told to leave their homes Tuesday afternoon because of another fire that had jumped a highway.

"Everything south of Highway 146 in Fritch evacuate now!" city officials said on Facebook.

On Tuesday evening, the fires were 20 to 25 miles from Amarillo, and wind was blowing wildfire smoke into the city, which could affect people with respiratory issues, weather service officials said.

The National Weather Service issued red flag warnings and fire danger alerts for several other states through the midsection of the country, as high winds of over 40 mph (64 kph) combined with warm temperatures, low humidity and dry winter vegetation to make conditions ripe for wildfires.

In central Nebraska, a mower sparked a prairie fire that has burned a huge swath of grassland roughly the size of the state's largest city of Omaha, state officials said Tuesday.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press