'Nothing left': Second-largest wildfire in Texas history

Richard Murray choked back tears on Wednesday as he surveyed the charred remains of his mechanic's workshop and home of 50 years in the small Texas Panhandle town of Canadian.

The previous night a sheriff's deputy had pounded on the door and ordered Murray and his wife Gilissa to evacuate as the state's second-largest wildfire on record approached their home.

"The house is gone and all the cars are melted," said Murray, 72, shortly after he returned home Wednesday morning. "There's nothing left."

The uncontained wildfire northeast of Amarillo has scorched 202,300 hectares (500,000 acres) since Monday, the Texas A&M Forest Service said, pushing eastward across the border of Oklahoma.

Several smaller wildfires at various stages of containment are burning other parts of the state's northern Panhandle, whipped up by fierce winds and hot, dry temperatures.

The area scorched by the main blaze, dubbed the Smokehouse Creek Fire, is about the size of New York City plus its sprawling suburb of Westchester County.

Richard Murray stands next to vehicles destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek wildfire on his property...
Richard Murray stands next to vehicles destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek wildfire on his property in Canadian. Photo: Reuters

The Forest Service said there were no reported injuries or deaths but an unspecified number of structures were damaged and destroyed.

Terrill Bartlett, Canadian's mayor, said the town was "blessed" that there had been no reports of serious injuries or fatalities, but it was devastating for residents who had lost homes.

"We're the kind of community that pulls together and supports one another," he said on Wednesday.

Murray said he and his wife will stay with friends for now and have already received dozens of calls from people offering help. On Wednesday morning, they were searching for their dogs and two cats.

"That's the hardest thing, not knowing what happened to them," he said.

On Tuesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties and directed the Texas Division of Emergency Management to activate more than 95 firefighters as well as personnel to close roads, control traffic, offer medical aid, and provide livestock support.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and US Forest Service are helping Texas, and federal authorities are in close touch with officials "on the front lines of these fires," said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre at a news briefing on Wednesday.

Wildland Team members depart to operate amid the spread of fire in Panhandle. Photo: Flower Mound...
Wildland Team members depart to operate amid the spread of fire in Panhandle. Photo: Flower Mound Texas Fire Department/via Reuters

The fires swept north of the US Department of Energy's Pantex plant, the nation's primary nuclear weapons assembly, disassembly, and modification facility, located near Amarillo. The threat prompted authorities on Tuesday to cease operations at the site, evacuate personnel and build a fire barrier, according to updates Pantex posted on X.

On Wednesday, the plant was "open for normal day shift operations," it said.

More than 13,000 Texas homes and businesses were without power as of Wednesday morning, with more than 4000 of those in the Panhandle region alone, according to data from PowerOutage.us.

Another resident of Canadian, Julene Castillo, tried to flee on Tuesday evening but was forced back when the smoke became too thick to drive through.

"The fire was burning all around us, we couldn't get out," said Castillo, 51, in an interview on Wednesday. "Even with the windows rolled up, your eyes and throat burned."

Castillo, who works as a secretary for Canadian Methodist Church, drove to the town's high school where she and about 100 other families "sat and prayed and cried and tried to comfort each other" in the parking lot.

A volunteer firefighter said about 50 homes had burned to the ground in Canadian alone, according to Castillo. "We didn't know what else would happen. We could see the fire's glow as the sun went down," she said.

Castillo returned home later Tuesday night and discovered her home had survived. She sheltered in place and opened her church on Wednesday for anyone needing a place to stay or pray.