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Out-of-control wildfire in Texas Panhandle shuts down nuclear facility, prompts evacuation orders

Christian Fernsby |
An out-of-control wildfire in the Texas Panhandle fueled by high winds and dry air since Monday afternoon prompted evacuation orders in small towns and shut down a nuclear facility, according to media reports.

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Pantex Plant, a major nuclear weapons facility in the United States, suspended its operation Tuesday night due to the raging wildfires.

The plant, located 21 miles (about 33.8 kilometers) east of Texas Panhandle's largest city Amarillo, assembles and disassembles the country's nuclear arsenal.

All weapons and special materials are safe and unaffected, according to a statement from Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC (CNS), which runs Pantex together with the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

"Currently, we are responding to the plant, but there is no fire on our site or on our boundary," Laef Pendergraft, a nuclear safety engineer with the NNSA production office at Pantex, said in a news conference.

"We have evacuated our nonessential personnel from the site, just in abundance of caution, but we do have a well-equipped fire department that has trained for these scenarios," Pendergraft said. "We are monitoring the scene, and we will continue on through the night to ensure that the Pantex plant is protected and safe."

However, local media outlet Amarillo Globe-News reported that an undisclosed incident occurred at 6:13 p.m. (0013 GMT Wednesday) at the Pantex Plant, citing a statement from CNS and NNSA.

According to the report, CNS and NNSA officials are directing response efforts, adding that appropriate precautionary protection actions have been initiated for Pantex employees. It is not immediately clear whether it is connected with the raging wildfires.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone as we go through this tonight, and hopefully, we'll get through this with no injuries or casualties," Pantex spokesman Steve Meyers was quoted as saying.

On Tuesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties in response to wildfires and said more counties could be added.

The governor warned that hot and dry conditions caused by high temperatures and windy conditions are expected to continue in the region in the coming days, raising fears that the wildfires may grow larger and more dangerous.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire has burnt more than 250,000 acres of land in just 28 hours, roughly 150 acres per minute, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

The service said the fire, which remained zero percent contained as of Tuesday evening, already ranked as the fifth-largest wildfire in Texas history.

Several other blazes were raging nearby, including the Grape Vine Creek Fire, which has scorched 30,000 acres and was 20 percent contained as of Tuesday afternoon, the service added.

Hemphill and Roberts counties in northern Texas issued evacuation orders as the fire approached populated areas on Tuesday afternoon.

In the city of Pampa, Gray County, authorities went door-to-door to suggest a voluntary evacuation on Tuesday evening due to the threat of the fast-spreading wildfires, according to a CNN report.

Pampa officials said on Facebook Tuesday evening that buses would be offered for people who need help evacuating the city.

"If there comes a time for the city to evacuate, a mass text will be sent, sirens will sound and notifications on our social media as well as local media will be notified immediately," the post said.

The Canadian Independent School District announced on Facebook that all public schools in the area will be closed on Wednesday.

Nearby Pampa, residents in the cities of Amarillo and Canadian have been urged to shelter in place, local media reported.


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