Spread of Texas' largest wildfire could accelerate as dry air and strong winds fuel it over the weekend



CNN

Deadly wildfires that have already torn through More than 1 million acres Strong winds and dry air across Texas and Oklahoma are expected to pick up speed Friday and into the weekend as they fan the flames.

After consuming 1,075,000 acres in the state of Texas, the Smokehouse Creek Fire is the largest fire ever recorded. Contains 3%. More than 31,500 acres had burned in Oklahoma as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the state's Forest Service. Overall, the fires are the largest in the Lower 48 since reliable recordkeeping began in the 1980s.

It was one of four wildfires burning across the Texas Panhandle, reducing neighborhoods to rubble, displacing families and burning grasslands and cattle ranches vital to the state's agricultural industry. In total, the fire has burned an area the size of the state of Delaware.

Authorities in Hutchinson and Hemphill counties say two people have died in the fire so far.

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After a glimpse of rain Thursday, fire danger in parts of the Texas Panhandle returned to severe on Saturday, and strong winds and low moisture combined with fragile vegetation were expected to fuel fires over the weekend.

Texans prepare to celebrate the state's Independence Day, prompting emergency warnings from officials to exercise extreme caution when using fireworks.

• The Windy Deuce Fire has burned 142,000 acres and is 55% contained as of Thursday afternoon, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.
• The Grapevine Creek Fire is 60% contained at over 30,000 acres.
• The Magenta fire has burned 3,300 acres and is 85% contained.
•Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is visiting the Panhandle on Friday and plans to hold a press conference in the afternoon.
Rough terrain and topography have made it difficult for firefighters to access parts of the Smokehouse Creek fire, Texas A&M Forest Service spokesman Juan Rodriguez said Thursday evening. About 200 personnel of the agency are engaged in fighting the fire.
• Firefighters in Oklahoma's Panhandle made some progress Thursday. The fire was 40% contained in the state by Thursday evening and emergency crews planned to build a cordon around a particularly at-risk area in Ellis County to contain the spread, Oklahoma Forestry Services spokesman Keith Merks said.

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Nick Oxford/Reuters

A wildfire burns behind a home outside Shattuck, Oklahoma on February 27, 2024.

• The National Weather Service has issued a fire weather watch that extends from the Texas Panhandle to the Oklahoma Panhandle and neighboring states through the weekend. Highs in the area will be in the 70s on Friday and in the 80s on Saturday and Sunday. Wind gusts of up to 40 mph are expected by Sunday, the service office said Amarillo, Texas.
• More than 400,000 acres have burned in Hemphill County, where scores of homes have been destroyed and thousands of livestock have died, said Andy Holloway, Hemphill County AgriLife Extension agent.
• The city of Fritch, Texas, is under a boil water notice, but Hutchinson County reported that “many residents are without power and gas, making it difficult to do so.” Officials said water bottles are being handed out at many churches and other places.

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• Search and rescue crews have begun clearing neighborhoods in Hutchinson County. Authorities there encouraged anyone who believes their loved one is missing to contact them Wildfire Information Line.
• Amarillo National Bank declared It also opened a Panhandle Disaster Relief Fund for wildfire victims, starting with its own $1 million donation.

Wildfires have ripped through farmland and ranches across the Texas Panhandle, leaving thousands of livestock and charred equipment in its wake.

The 120-year-old Turkey Track Ranch estimates 80% of its 80,000-acre property has burned. Nicknamed the “Gift of the Panhandle,” the ranch had a sweeping view of meadows, valleys, and pastures.

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“We believe the loss of livestock, crops and wildlife, as well as farm fences and other infrastructure across our property, as well as other farms and homes throughout the region, is unparalleled in our history,” the Turkey Track Farm Family Group said in a statement.

But the group said it was still optimistic about the land's future. “Nature heals after a fire, and all the native grasses, plants, and trees grow back in our beloved farm oasis.”

Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said the damage could be “catastrophic” for the region.

“These fires not only threaten lives and property but also have a significant impact on our agricultural industry. More than 85% of the state's livestock population is on farms in the Panchayat. There are millions of cattle, and some cities have more cattle than people,” Miller said in a news release.

The Texas Farm Bureau has announced that it has established Texas Panhandle Wildfire Relief Fund To help farmers and ranchers affected by fire.

Truck driver Cindy Owens was working Tuesday about 50 miles north of Pampa, Texas, when she was caught in the Smokehouse Creek Fire, her sister-in-law told CNN.

“She couldn't breathe, she got out of the truck and tried to run for safety and didn't make it,” said Jennifer Mitchell, who is married to Owen's brother. “So she was found with burns that covered 90% of her body.”

Mitchell said Owen, 44, was on a video chat, so family members tried to find someone to help him.

Owen died in the Hemphill County fire, Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Chris Ray said.

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Family photo

Cindy Owen in an undated photo.

Mitchell said Cindy was devoted to her family and would “do anything for anybody,” including giving people coats on cold days.

“She was everybody's friend, everybody knew her… nothing bad could be said about her. He's the best guy ever,” Mitchell said.

A second person has died in a fire in Hutchinson County, local officials said.

While authorities have not publicly identified the victim, Joyce Blankenship, 83, died at her home in Stinnett, her family told CNN.

“The house is gone,” Nathan Blankenship said. “There's no way she can get out.”

Blankenship's stepson, Lee Quesada, said he was well-known and beloved in the small community. Her husband, Jimmy, died in 2015.

“Jimmy was a substitute teacher in the area before she became a homemaker while working at the local Phillips refinery,” Quezada said. “She will be missed by all.”

CNN's David Williams, Andy Rose, Steve Almasi, Holly Yan and Robert Shackelford contributed to this report.

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