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Largest wildfire in state history still raging


A wildfire in the Texas Panhandle has consumed more than 1 million acres and as of Sunday was just 15% contained, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. It is the largest wildfire in Texas history.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire is by far the most extensive of several blazes, which also include the Grape Vine Creek Fire in Gray County, covering 30,000 acres and 60% contained, and the Windy Deuce Fire in Moore County, which covers 142,000 acres and was 60% contained.

Two deaths have been reported thus far, with hundreds of homes and other structures destroyed and thousands  of cattle likely killed, according to Sid Miller, the state’s agriculture commissioner. Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties, and firefighting crews from across the state have arrived to assist.

The causes of the fires have not been determined, though the Panhandle has been experiencing exceptionally dry and windy weather. The forest service is advising residents and motorists traveling through the Panhandle to be cautious and not aggravate fire conditions.

“A lot of our fires start from the roadside,” Meghan Mahurin, public information officer, said. “Dragging chains, throwing cigarettes, and pulling trucks off into a bar ditch where a hot exhaust can hit tall grass can cause one.”

At least one lawsuit has already been filed, blaming downed power lines owned by Xcel Energy for starting a blaze, the Texas Tribune reported.

DPS director testifies before Uvalde grand jury

A Uvalde grand jury considering bringing possible charges against law enforcement officers for the flawed response to the Robb Elementary school shooting heard testimony behind closed doors last week from Texas Department of Public Safety Director Col. Steve McCraw.

The Austin American-Statesman reported McCraw flew from Austin on a state plane and was driven to the Uvalde County Fairplex, where the grand jury is meeting. He made no public comments.

The Statesman has previously reported that multiple law enforcement officers have been ordered to appear before the grand jury, including from DPS. The responding officers have come under harsh criticism for not confronting the shooter more quickly. He murdered 19 students and two teachers before being killed.

McGraw’s agency thus far has refused to release investigative information in the case, despite rulings to do so from a judge in lawsuit brought by the Statesman and multiple media outlets. The agency said it is doing so at the request of the Uvalde County District Attorney to protect the grand jury proceedings.

Supreme Court considers states’ social media laws

Laws passed in Texas and Florida to regulate the authority of social media companies over content moderation have been challenged and are now before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Statesman reported.

Trade groups representing Facebook, YouTube, X and Instagram have been joined by the U.S. Justice Department in suing the two states, arguing the laws infringe on the companies’ First Amendment right to free speech.

House Bill 20 in Texas passed in 2021. It required social media companies to publicly disclose their content moderation processes and provide recourse for Texans whose posts or accounts are removed or suspended.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, held a news conference after the high court hearing laws week.

“They control the new town square,” he said of the social media companies. “Everybody understands that that’s where people go to hash it out, to exercise their First Amendment rights, to have a discussion.”

Judge pauses survey of Texas bitcoin miners

A federal judge has temporarily halted an effort by the Department of Energy to collect electricity consumption data from cryptocurrency miners, the Houston Chronicle reported. Texas bitcoin miners claimed the mandatory survey was a “politically motivated attack on the industry.”

The suit was filed by the Texas Blockchain Council and Riot Platforms in Rockdale, the most power-intensive bitcoin mine in the United States. They claimed the DOE sent out the mandatory survey without a public notice and comment period.

Cryptocurrency miners use huge arrays of computers to process data that unlocks cryptocurrency. They consume huge amounts of energy. One estimate claims a single bitcoin transaction uses as much power as the average U.S. household consumes in 37 days.

Postpartum coverage extended for Medicaid, CHIP recipients.

The state is extending postpartum health coverage from two to 12 months for eligible Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) recipients, Gov. Greg Abbott announced.

“By extending postpartum Medicaid and CHIP coverage, we will help ensure new mothers and the most vulnerable young Texans receive critical healthcare resources they need to care for their families and thrive,” Abbott said.

The change was effective March 1.

Mitigating impacts of invasive species in Texas

The Texas A&M Forest Service is trying to raise awareness of the damaging effects of invasive species, from displacement of native trees to potentially wiping out entire species.

“Invasive species produce a measurable impact,” said Demian Gomez, with the service. “If left unchecked, invasives can threaten native species, biodiversity, ecosystem services, water resources, agricultural and forest production, economies and property values.”

Among the invasive species affecting Texas are the emerald ash borer, oak wilt, the Brazilian peppertree and the red bay ambrosia beetle.

“Early detection, rapid assessment and rapid response (EDRR) provides the greatest opportunity for eradication and cost-effective management of invasive species. The EDRR program, a network of traps targeting exotic bark and ambrosia beetles, increases the likelihood that invasive species will be found, contained and eradicated before they become widely established,” the news release said.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches, Lufkin and Cedar Park. Email: gborders@texaspress.com.


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