Nuclear weapon factory forced to evacuate as Texas wildfires threaten plant

Several wildfires are scorching the Texas panhandle with thousands evacuated

Lisa Baumann,Katie Hawkinson
Wednesday 28 February 2024 21:21 GMT
An aerial view of the flames scorching the Texas panhandle

Wildfires sweeping across Texas briefly forced the evacuation of America’s main nuclear weapons facility as strong winds, dry grass and unseasonably warm temperatures fed the blaze.

Pantex Plant, the main facility that assembles and disassembles America’s nuclear arsenal, shut down its operations on Tuesday night as the Windy Deuce fire roared towards the Potter County location.

An aerial view of the fire threatening the nuclear weapons plant in Texas (Reuters)

“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 on Tuesday night.

“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.”

Pantex re-opened and resumed operations as normal on Wednesday morning.

Pantex is about 17 miles (27.36 kilometers) northeast of Amarillo and some 320 miles (515 kilometers) northwest of Dallas.

Since 1975 it has been the US’s main assembly and disassembly site for its atomic bombs. It assembled the last new bomb in 1991.

This satellite image from Planet Labs PBC shows the Pantex nuclear facility near Amarillo, Texas, on Saturday February 24 (AP)

The Windy Deuce fire doubled in size on Wednesday afternoon, burning 90,000 acres at 25 per cent containment. That morning, it was at just 40,000 acres.

Multiple other fires, some much larger, are also threatening the Texas Panhandle with Republican Governor Greg Abbott issuing a disaster declaration for 60 counties across the state.

The largest blaze – the Smokehouse Creek Fire – had burned through 850,000 acres as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service, after it doubled in size on Tuesday. The fire is now bigger than the state of Rhode Island, and almost 20 times the size of Washington DC.

A home destroyed by the Somehouse Creek fire pictured in Canadian, Texas (REUTERS)

At just 3 per cent containment, it could surpass the state’s largest fire — recorded at just over 900,000 acres — by the end of Wednesday.

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,” Mr Abbott said.

The much-smaller Grape Vine Creek fire is 60 per cent contained, while the Magenta fire is 40 per cent contained as of Wednesday. The 687 Reamer fire, just south of the Smokehouse Creek fire, was at 10 per cent containment.

However, weather conditions have improved from earlier this week. The National Weather Service (NWS) said the state will see cooler temperatures and weak winds on Wednesday, which could help limit the spread of the five active fires in the state’s Panhandle.

A map of Pantex

Early this week, the NWS 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 made conditions ripe for wildfires.

The Smokehouse Creek fire also spread to Oklahoma late Tuesday, causing evacuations and destruction in the towns of Gage and Shattuck, local outlet KOCO reports.

Evacuation orders were issued across multiple Texas counties on Tuesday, with county and city officials live-streaming on Facebook as they 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 the limit.

Some residents of the small town of Fritch were told to leave their homes because of another fire that had jumped a highway. “Everything south of Highway 146 in Fritch evacuate now!” city officials said on Facebook.

On Wednesday morning, the Hutchinson County Office of Emergency Management said many homes had been lost and some were actively on fire, especially in Fritch.

Several wildfires are scorching the Texas panhandle on Tuesday, prompting evacuations (The Weather Channel)
The Smoke House Creek fire in Hutchinson County, Texas pictured on Tuesday afternoon (Texas A&M Forest Service)

“I don’t think a lot of the folks that live in the Fritch area are probably going to be prepared for what they’re going to see as they pull into town,” a spokesperson with the office said. “Some homes were completely lost and some honestly are still standing and just fine.”

Texas state Senator Kevin Sparks said an evacuation order had been issued for Canadian, a town of about 2,000 about 100 miles (160 kilometers) 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.

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