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Texas Panhandle Wildfires Wreak Havoc on the State’s Agriculture Industry

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For the past week, the Texas Panhandle has been covered in flames. The ongoing inferno—the largest wildfire in the state’s history—has burned up nearly 1.3 million acres of land, and firefighters have only managed to contain 15 percent of it as of Sunday. 

The state government is currently investigating the initial cause of the fire. But scientists say that a combination of abnormally high winter temperatures, low relative humidity and strong winds—conditions becoming more common with climate change—is what transformed the region into a tinderbox and enabled the flames to spread uncontrollably. 

People and animals in the state’s agricultural industry have been among the hardest hit. 

“Dead Animals Everywhere”: The Texas Panhandle is dominated by rangeland, where millions of beef cattle graze on dry shortgrass and other prairie plants. When temperatures and winds picked up in the first days of March, “all it took was a spark to start a wildfire,” writes Karen Hickman, a grassland ecologist at Oklahoma State University and president of the Society for Range Management, in the Conversation

Livestock producers and ranchers scrambled to evacuate their cattle, but some were forced to cut their fences and let the cows run free to flee from rapidly approaching flames. Last Wednesday, Texas Rep. Ronny Jackson of the state’s 13th District posted a video after witnessing the destruction from the sky during a helicopter survey, remarking that there were “dead animals everywhere.” Though total losses have not yet been reported, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said on Thursday that he predicts 10,000 cattle will have died or will need to be euthanized since many will likely have had their hooves or udders burned off. 

Compounding the problem, fires have also devastated agricultural infrastructure, the Texas Tribune reported.

“The fires have left little food or water for livestock. Some farmers lost everything. Property fences are gone. Hundreds of miles of power lines have burned, leaving no electricity to pump water from wells—which farmers rely on to hydrate their cattle,” writes Alejandra Martinez for the Tribune. 

These losses could be catastrophic for the agricultural industry in the Panhandle, which holds over 85 percent of the state’s cattle population and contributed $186.1 billion to Texas’ economy in 2021. The industry was already in a difficult state following intense droughts last year that forced ranchers across Texas and the country to reduce their herd size, which is expected to decrease national beef production by about 24.7 billion pounds, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

And scientists say this unprecedented fire is just a sign of more to come, which David Wallace-Wells discusses in a recent opinion piece for the New York Times.

Hay Delivery: Though ranchers who lost cattle in the fires are not eligible for FEMA disaster aid, they can apply for emergency state recovery grants, and some relief funds from the Texas Department of Agriculture. 

In the meantime, ranchers in surrounding communities and other states have stepped up to lend a helping hand. Yesterday, farmers from Barber County, Kansas, led a contingent of semis, trucks and trailers stuffed to the brim with hay bales across the Texas border for donation, and ranchers from across the state have made their own hay contributions to those affected in the Panhandle. 

The Inside Scoop: I reached out to my colleague in Texas, Dylan Baddour, and asked him what he’s thinking about as the fire continues to burn out of control. Here’s what he wrote back to me: 

Last year the Texas Tribune reported a rapid rise in billion-dollar weather disasters was driving up Texas home insurance rates. 

Now, a million acres burnt in rural Texas will also mean big payouts from federal crop insurance, which covers farmers and ranchers. Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 2022, the last year available, showed the highest insured losses in Texas in at least 15 years—almost $3.7 billion.

Whether through disaster recovery or crop insurance, weather damage in Texas means big costs to the federal budget and higher insurance rates for farmers, ranchers and homeowners in the state.

More Top Climate News

Though people in Texas are feeling the heat, the exact opposite is happening in Northern California: Over the last five days, a blizzard dumped more than 100 inches of snow in some areas of the Sierra Nevada, Axios reported

Too Much Snow, and Not Enough: This torrent of snow was literally enough to shut down ski resorts. This may seem ironic given the recent uptick in news coverage about ski resorts struggling to get enough snow as temperatures rise, including this piece by my colleague Kristoffer Tigue that discusses the impact of warm winters on snow recreation in the upper Midwest. 

But it just goes to show how extreme weather is affecting different regions in a variety of ways throughout the year (to be clear, scientists have not linked climate change to the Sierra Nevada’s “monster blizzard,” as the LA Times calls it, but California has seen its fair share of climate-fueled weather events in the past few years). And skiing isn’t the only tourism sector being affected by climate change. 

For example, traveling to cold destinations to beat the heat—dubbed “coolcationing”—is gaining popularity as heat waves become increasingly common due to climate change, Axios covered. Condé Nast even named coolcationing as one of its “Biggest Travel Trends” to expect in 2024. In a separate climate-related travel trend, tourists are flocking to the Mer de Glace glacier in Chamonix, France, before it melts, illustrating a rise in “last-chance tourism,” writes Paige McClanahan for the New York Times



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