• U.S.
  • Texas

Texas Wildfires Rip Through State, Leaving Two Women Dead and Towns Evacuated

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

A series of raging wildfires sweeping across the Texas Panhandle have burned through 1.26 million acres across the state and led to the death of two people.

An 83-year-old grandmother from Stinnett, Hutchinson County, who died in her home, was identified by family members as Joyce Blankenship on Wednesday. 

Blankenship’s grandson Lee Quesada told the Associated Press he had asked for help in a community forum to locate his grandmother, a former teacher. Per Quesada, he was later told by officials that his uncle had been informed that Blankenship’s remains were discovered in her burned home. 

A second death was confirmed on Thursday. The Amarillo woman, believed to be in her 40s, was identified as Cindy Owens, who was driving a truck in the Texan city Canadian on Tuesday when she stepped out of the vehicle for unknown reasons and "the fire simply overtook her," Sgt. Chris Ray of the Texas Department of Public Safety said. Owens was discovered by a stranger who called emergency services, but she died as a result of her burns. 

The wildfires led to Texas Governor Greg Abbott issuing a state of disaster declaration in 60 counties and have resulted in forced evacuations in a number of towns. The state’s fire preparedness level was raised to three amid concerns that wildfire activity will continue to increase.

The fires have been dubbed the second largest wildfires in U.S. history, and the worst wildfires to have ever hit Texas. The 140 blazes have collectively burned through 1,260,725 acres of land, with at least 12 fires breaking out in neighboring Oklahoma. 

The largest fire—which broke out Monday at Smokehouse Creek, north of Amarillo—is only 5% contained and has now burned through 1.075 million acres, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. While authorities remain unsure about the cause of the fires, its ferocity has been aided by strong winds and dry grass paired with warm temperatures. 

Governor Abbott called on the Texas Division of Emergency Management to bring forward additional emergency response efforts to support local firefighters on Tuesday. The efforts continue.

“Hot and dry conditions caused by high temperatures and windy conditions are expected to continue in the region in the coming days,” Abbott said in a statement. “These conditions could increase the potential for these wildfires to grow larger and more dangerous.” 

He called on Texans to "to limit activities that could create sparks and take precautions to keep their loved ones safe." 

The blaze also led to the shutdown of a nuclear weapons facility at Pantex on Tuesday night, before resuming “normal day shift operations” on Wednesday morning, according to Pantex’s post on X (formerly Twitter). 

At least 4,791 energy customers were left without power on Wednesday, according to energy-tracker PowerOutage.us. But by Friday morning, this figure had dropped to 1,317. 

Authorities have so far struggled to maintain the fires, with high temperatures and windy conditions forecast for Saturday and Sunday that could further stoke the blaze. Amarillo’s National Weather Service described the forecast as “critical fire weather conditions.”

As the Texas wildfires rage on, here’s what you need to know.

Which areas have been affected by the Texas wildfires?

The wildfires are spreading across the Texas Panhandle, an almost 26,000-square-mile region in the U.S. state of Texas that consists of its 26 northernmost counties. 

Citizens of the Mesilla Park area of Potter County were hit with a mandatory evacuation order on Tuesday, while authorities in other regions across northern Texas have encouraged Texans to flee their homes as the fires continue to burn. 

Several other communities have received evacuation warnings, including the Moore and Potter counties, which are close to the Oklahoma border. Hemphill County residents were advised to follow suit as the fires reached Canadian, a town home to 2,200 residents, located about 100 miles (160 kilometers) northeast of Amarillo. 

Hemphill County Sheriff’s Office later urged those remaining in Canadian to stay put or shelter at the high school gym as roads had been closed.

The Moore County Sheriff's Office said the Double Diamond area west of Fritch has been affected by an emergency evacuation alert. "Due to the approaching fire it's imperative to evacuate the area for your safety and well-being," the office said in a statement directing citizens to a local church to shelter in. 

Evacuations are also taking place in Skellytown, Wheeler, Allison, and Briscoe, according to the National Weather Service in Amarillo.

What have officials said about the Texas wildfires?

U.S. President Joe Biden publicly addressed the wildfires on Thursday, during a trip to the southern border in Brownsville, to tour the U.S.-Mexico border. Biden thanked first responders for their efforts, and reminded locals to listen to official warnings. 

He added that the federal government has organized 500 people to help control the fires, and said that Texas and Oklahoma will be reimbursed by FEMA for ensuring public safety. 

“When disasters strike, there is no red state or blue state where I come from. There are just communities and families looking for help,” he said, noting that Texas has received $13 billion in relief funding during his presidency. 

He also linked the disaster to environmental concerns, saying: “I love some of my Neanderthal friends who still think there’s no climate change.”

On Wednesday, Texas senator Ted Cruz shared evacuation help for those fleeing their homes, saying “As we continue to monitor the Panhandle fires, shelters have opened up for those impacted.” Cruz listed the locations for four shelters that had been established in a youth center and local churches.  

Cruz posted an update on X later that evening, saying that the fires “are raging ferociously” and his team continues to monitor the situation. "We need those who are impacted to listen to your local officials’ warnings and be prepared to move out of harm’s way,” he wrote.

Officials in Hutchinson County shared a statement on Facebook, shedding light on the gravity of the situation while offering locals advice, according to Sky News. "We have areas without power, water, and active burning," the statement said. "Pray for the safety of all involved. And pack your go bag just in case. That is the best information we know how to provide right now."

Moore County Sheriff's Office, who are assisting Hutchinson County’s evacuation efforts, shared a Facebook post saying, "We have seen tragedy today and we have seen miracles. Today was a historic event we hope never happens again."

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Armani Syed at armani.syed@time.com