Lessons From 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.

Transmission lines caused the ignition. Photo George Wuerthner

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.

We have evolutionary evidence that Indian burning seldom influenced large landscales. For instance, sagebrush has no adaptation to fire, and the fact there are hundreds of millions of acres of sagebrush, plus sage grouse, sage thrasher, pygmy rabbits, and sage sprarrow suggests Indian burning was localized. Cheatgrass invasion in sagebrush, Nevada, Photo George Wuerthner

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.

UPDATE: Smokehouse and other fires contained. 


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  1. Jerry Thiessen Avatar
    Jerry Thiessen

    I have a disagreement with George on the Indian burning question. The fact that we have hundreds of millions of acres of sagebrush, and the wide diversity of wildlife that inhabits them, is not evidence that Indians did not burn a lot and beyond localized areas, whatever that means. Indian burns were patchwork, becuse as George has frequently pointed out about naturally caused fires, it’s the way fire behaves short of high temperatures, high winds and drought. But Indians could revisit areas after short intervals and burn hundreds or possibly thousands of acres according to their own schedule. Sagebrush would reinvade burned areas within a few decades and provide habitat for sage dependent species. Mosaics provide the best mix of wildlife habitat and Indians knew more about that than we do. They were very ecologically aware and took advantage of it, especially when it pertained to fire.
    I agree that Indians did not try to burn semi arid areas that did not produce enough fuel to sustain a fire, or areas, like Pacific forests, that were too wet to burn predictably except for travel lanes, camping places or huckleberry patches. But a lot of the inland northwest had climate, weather patterns and vegetarian that were codusive to burning by prescription that enhanced the well being of native Americans. And, I believe they did.

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