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Massive wildfire triggers evacuations and outages in the Texas Panhandle

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The weather is improving in the Texas Panhandle, where a colossal wildfire that started Monday is still burning out of control. It has already burned close to 800 square miles. Now the winds are lighter today, that means the fire is not expected to spread as quickly as it did yesterday, but it is still threatening towns and rural homes. Brad Burt with member station KTTZ in Lubbock is following developments. Hey there, Brad.

BRAD BURT, BYLINE: Hey. Thank you.

KELLY: OK, so I gather this is now the second largest wildfire in state history. Get us up to speed. How are things today?

BURT: Well, yesterday, the weather conditions were a lot heavier. We were seeing 25- to 30-mile-an-hour winds consistent with 15-mile-an-hour gusts. But today they've calmed down significantly. There's a touch more humidity, and it's about 10 to 15 miles an hour regular wind speeds.

KELLY: OK. And certain towns are at risk if winds shift. What do we know?

BURT: Yes, there's multiple fires going. There's several small towns that dot across that part of the Panhandle, one of them being Pampa, has about 20,000 people. They are still concerned about what they're going to look like.

KELLY: Yeah. Where has been hardest hit so far by the fire?

BURT: It's all mostly been to the north and northeast of Amarillo, in the northeast corner of the panhandle there. We know it has burned some homes in and around the town of Canadian. There's about 2,200 people that live there. They were forced to evacuate late last night. As far as I know, there have not been any updates to that. There are several small towns there that are still dealing with mandatory and voluntary evacuations. For a while, it was threatening the Pantex Plant north of Amarillo. Pantex is the U.S. primary facility for assembling and dismantling nuclear weapons.

KELLY: Oh.

BURT: So all nonessential personnel were evacuated around 10 o'clock last night after threats from the fire. Those employees have since been called back to the plant, but the fire is still only about 25% contained.

KELLY: Twenty-five percent. Well, what are authorities around there saying in terms of the progress they're making in trying to get it more contained?

BURT: Amarillo fire departments have said that they are making progress. Obviously, the weather is helping here. Crews are coming in from all over the state to help out, Lubbock, Fort Worth, and all part of the response team that is trying to fight this. But it's still a very challenging place for firefighters. It's very rough country. It's dry grasslands and rugged terrain that makes it really hard for firefighters to get around and access the fire. And so depending on which way the winds blow, it could really affect the ability for firefighters to make progress on fighting this fire.

KELLY: You said the weather is helping. Give us a little hope. What is the forecast?

BURT: They're expecting cooler temperatures today, which would be really helpful. More precipitation would be extremely helpful. There are parts that are seeing predictions for rain or even light snow out there by Amarillo today and tomorrow. So more importantly, those high winds are staying low, and that will really help slow the fire spread.

KELLY: All right. That is Brad Burt with member station KTTZ in Lubbock following developments with this wildfire that started Monday and is still burning. Thank you, Brad.

BURT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B, STATIK SELEKTAH, METHOD MAN AND GRAFH SONG, "STILL TRILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Brad Burt
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