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Out-of-control Texas wildfires prompt shutdown of nuclear weapons facility

Out-of-control Texas wildfires prompt shutdown of nuclear weapons facility

Wildfires swept across the Texas Panhandle early on Wednesday, causing evacuations, power outages and the shutdown of a nuclear weapons facility.

Strong winds, dry grass and unseasonably warm temperatures continue to feed the blazes, which show no sign of stopping.

An unknown number of homes and other buildings in Hutchinson County were damaged or destroyed, local emergency officials said.

The main facility that assembles and disassembles America's nuclear arsenal shut down its operations Tuesday night.

"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 that the plant "is open for normal day shift operations" and that all personnel were to report for duty according to their assigned schedule.

Since 1975, Pantex has been the US's main assembly and disassembly site for its nuclear weapons. It assembled its last new bomb in 1991 while disassembling thousands.

The Pantex plant near Amarillo, Texas.
The Pantex plant near Amarillo, Texas. - Planet Labs PBC/AP

Republican Governor Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties as the largest blaze, the Smokehouse Creek Fire, burned nearly 1,040 square kilometres of land, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

That means the fire has more than doubled in size since it first sparked on Monday.

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.

The weather forecast provided some hope for firefighters – cooler temperatures, less wind and possibly rain on Thursday. For now, the situation remains dire in several areas.

In Borger, a community of about 13,000 roughly 40 kilometres 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.

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 mobiles' emergency alerts and be ready to evacuate immediately. They described some roads as having fire on both sides, with resources stretched to their limit.

People posted on Facebook about their streets and communities, hoping for good news. More often the answer was either that an area had suffered damage or there wasn't any indication yet of how it had fared.

The National Weather Service has issued red flag warnings and fire danger alerts for several other states.

High winds of more than 64 kilometres per hour have combined with warm temperatures, low humidity and dry winter vegetation to make conditions ripe for wildfires.