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Nuclear weapon factory forced to evacuate as Texas wildfires threaten Pantex plant

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

The main facility that assembles and disassembles America’s nuclear arsenal shut down its operations on Tuesday night as homes in Hutchinson County were damaged or destroyed.

“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.

“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.”

Early Wednesday Pantex posted on X, formally known as Twitter, the plant “is open for normal day shift operations” and that all personnel were to report for duty according to their assigned schedule.

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 U.S. main assembly and disassembly site for its atomic bombs. It assembled the last new bomb in 1991 while disassembling thousands.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties as the largest blaze, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, scorched the panhandle. The blaze burned through 500,000 acres, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service, after it doubled in size on Tuesday. The fire is now half the size of Rhode Island, and 11 times the size of Washington, DC.

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

(AP)

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,” Abbott said.

A map of Pantex

The weather forecast provided some hope for firefighters — cooler temperatures, less wind and possibly rain on Thursday. But for now, the situation was dire in some areas.

In Borger, a community of about 13,000 roughly 25 miles (40.23 kilometers) north of Pantex, Hutchinson County emergency management services personnel planned a convoy to take evacuees from one shelter to another ahead of expected power outages and overnight temperatures in the 20s.

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

“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 on social media. “Some homes were completely lost and some honestly are still standing and just fine.”

As the evacuation orders mounted, county and city officials live-streamed on Facebook and 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 their limit.

Texas state Sen. Kevin Sparks said an evacuation order was 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.

Several wildfires are scorching the Texas panhandle on Tuesday, prompting evacuations

(The Weather Channel)

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.

Evacuations were also happening in Skellytown, Wheeler, Allison and Briscoe, according to the National Weather Service in Amarillo.

About 40 miles (64 kilometers) southwest of Canadian, city officials in Pampa on Facebook suggested that residents evacuate to the south and said buses were available. Officials said personnel were still fighting the fire Tuesday night but that residents of Pampa could return home.“They were able to get the fire stopped north of town,” weather service officials said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

To the west, at least some residents in Fritch were told to leave their homes Tuesday afternoon because of another fire that had jumped a highway. “Everything south of Highway 146 in Fritch evacuate now!” city officials said on Facebook.

The Smoke House Creek fire in Hutchinson County, Texas pictured on Tuesday afternoon

(Texas A&M Forest Service)

On Tuesday evening, the fires were 20 to 25 miles (32 to 40 kilometers) from Amarillo, and wind was blowing wildfire smoke into the city, which could affect people with respiratory issues, weather service officials said.

In central Nebraska, a mower sparked a prairie fire that has burned a huge swath of grassland roughly the size of the state’s largest city of Omaha, state officials said Tuesday.

The National Weather Service 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 to make conditions ripe for wildfires.


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