Lessons From a Record Texas Wildfire

More than 1.24  million acres have charred a portion of the Texas panhandle and parts of adjacent Oklahoma. The Smokehouse Blaze is the largest in Texas history and the second-largest fire in the nation’s history. It is larger than the top 20 largest wildfires in California over the past 90 years.

High Plains Texas panhandle. Photo George Wuerthner.

The Smokehouse Creek fire was ignited on Feb. 26 near Stinnett, northeast of Amarillo.

Several other nearby fires, including the Windy Deuce, Grape Vine Creek, and Magenta, raged in the Panhandle simultaneously and are included in the above burn acreage.

There are a couple of observations to review.

These blazes raced through non-forested areas like the Maui Fire in Hawaii, the Marshall Fire in Colorado, the Soda Fire in Idaho, and the Long Draw Fire in Oregon.

This suggests the federal government policy attributing flammability to “fire suppression” and “fuel buildup” is misleading.

Another point is that this part of Texas is “cattle country.” Millions of cattle graze the region. By some estimates, 85 percent of the 12 million cattle raised in Texas live on ranches in the Panhandle.

For years, cattle associations, range schools, and numerous other livestock advocates have continuously suggested that livestock grazing can preclude large wildfires. However, this Texas blaze raises the question of how effective cattle grazing is as a fire deterrent.

As in all large fires, the main factor in the spread of the Smokehouse Fire are extreme climatic conditions: record winter heat, dry grass, and gusty winds.

Researchers have already found that Texas’ fire season has already grown by two months, and the season is only expected to undergo “lengthening and intensifying” as temperatures rise and extreme weather conditions such as drought and strong winds worsen.

Ultimately, the factor responsible for large blazes isn’t fuels; it is climate change. It is difficult to argue that with millions of cattle grazing the Texas Panhandle, there is more “fuel” today than in decades when fires were less virulent.

Temperatures in Texas have risen by 0.61 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1975, according to a 2021 report by the state climatologist’s office. The relative humidity in the Panhandle region has been decreasing as well.

Like many blazes, the ultimate source of ignition was power lines. “Based on currently available information, Xcel Energy acknowledges that its facilities appear to have been involved in an ignition of the Smokehouse Creek fire,” the utility provider stated.

One of the threats created by the blaze concerned the safety of the Pantex nuclear plant, located about 30 miles east of Amarillo.

The plant is one of “the nation’s primary assembly, disassembly, retrofit, and life-extension centers for nuclear weapons.”

The fire damaged or destroyed at least 500 structures and led to the death of two people and thousands of cattle. Some estimates suggest perhaps as many as 10,000 cattle will die either directly from the fire or have to be put down due to excessive burns.

For ranchers, the fire is a severe financial challenge beyond the loss of cattle. With so much pasture burned, finding feed for the remaining cattle will be difficult.

The unfortunate losses of homes, lives, and livestock point to the most significant issue, which is that climate change is driving large wildfires. The focus on “fire suppression” and “fuel buildup” ignores these realities. Long-term climate/fire studies have demonstrated a correlation between mega-droughts and large fires long before Europeans set foot on the North American continent.

Many advocates of human manipulation of the planet suggest that Indian cultural burning prevented large blazes. We are told tribal burns kept fuels low, and high-severity fires were uncommon.

However, the scientific evidence does not support that assertion, as large blazes are well documented in sediment, pollen, and charcoal records before pre-European contact. Large blazes like the Texas fires are a consequence of climate factors, not fuels, and have always been so.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy