Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
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Glenn Hegar
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts
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economicsPanhandle Wildfires Devastate Lives, Economy

Economic Losses Could Top $1 Billion

May 2024 | Lisa Minton and Brandon Vasquez

Photos courtesy Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

Some of the worst wildfires in state history raged through the Texas Panhandle in late February, prompting Gov. Greg Abbott to issue a disaster declaration for 60 counties and the state to launch an investigation that found the fire was started by power lines from a decayed, broken utility pole.

burnt power pole

The May 1 report by the Texas House Investigative Committee (PDF) on the Panhandle Wildfires estimated more than 15,000 cattle died and 130 homes and businesses were lost, with more than a million acres of land scorched ― land that held important infrastructure, such as water wells and utility lines. Most tragically, 83-year-old grandmother Joyce Blankenship of Sinnett and 44-year-old truck driver Cindy Owen of Amarillo lost their lives in the wildfires, and Fritch Fire Chief Zeb Smith, who fought the wildfires, died after responding to an unrelated structure fire, according to news reports.

Texas is one of the nation’s top producers of agricultural products, with $29.7 billion in total cash receipts for agricultural commodities in 2022, as estimated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and cited in the Comptroller’s office May 2024 Bond Appendix. The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service puts agriculture and agriculture-related losses to the Panhandle as a result of the fires at approximately $123 million. Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller estimated cows are worth between $2,500 and $3,000 a head, mirroring the House committee report’s estimate of $27 million in lost cattle. The immediate monetary loss does not reflect the loss of generations spent cultivating the genetics of these cattle in the Panhandle.

burnt trees

Beyond crop and cattle losses, the wildfires produced an adverse ripple effect on the Panhandle’s economy and adjacent economic sectors – the loss of families who must relocate from the area; the destruction of wildlife and natural habitat, which will impact the local hunting and tourism industries; and the eventual losses to local governments’ tax revenues as property owners utilize property tax exemptions for their damaged properties. According to the House committee report, those additional losses could top $1 billion. One of the hardest hit counties alone, Hemphill County, lost more than $200 million in homes, structures and real property (i.e., farm equipment, vehicles), according to preliminary estimates.

Tax Relief for Property Owners

Texas residents who experience property damage in disaster areas may be eligible for a temporary property tax exemption. All exemption applications are completed locally with the appraisal district, and the Comptroller’s Property Tax Assistance Division offers online information about applying for such exemptions. Texas Tax Code Section 11.35 allows for a temporary exemption for qualified property damaged by disaster if at least 15 percent of the property is damaged by the disaster. Various levels of exemptions are allowed depending on the amount of damage assessed (Exhibit 1).

Exhibit 1: Property Damage Assessment and Corresponding Exemption Percentage

Property Damage Assessment and Corresponding Exemption Percentage
Level Damage Assessment Percentage Damage Description Exemption Percentage
I 15% to <30% Minimal, may continue to be used as intended 15%
II 30% to <60% Nonstructural damage and waterline less than 18 inches above floor 30%
III 60% to <100% Significant structural damage and waterline more than 18 inches above floor 60%
IV 100% Total loss; repair is not feasible 100%

Source: Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts

Property owners must apply with their local tax appraisal office for the temporary exemption no later than 105 days after the governor’s disaster declaration. Since the governor issued the disaster declaration on Feb. 27, the deadline to apply is June 11, 2024. Property owners must submit Form 50-312, Temporary Exemption Property Damaged by Disaster (PDF) to receive a temporary exemption. Any temporary property tax exemptions would go into effect for the current tax year.

Disaster Relief Measures

The Comptroller’s office offered assistance during and immediately after the wildfires. It waived the bond requirements for licenses issued to distributors and importers in Texas that provide fuel to those responding to the wildfires in the disaster-stricken counties. The waiver expired March 22. Additionally, anyone who paid a tax on clear diesel fuel between Feb. 23 and March 22 in the declared disaster counties may request a refund from the Comptroller’s office. Taxpayers in the disaster area also may be eligible for an extension of time to file and pay taxes due of not more than 90 days imposed by the original due date.

A more detailed listing of the tax- and fee-related efforts to assist those affected by the Panhandle wildfires may be found on the Comptroller’s Disaster Relief Information webpage.