Texas wildfires: Firefighters rush to contain blazes ahead of warmer weather

The number of wildfires burning in the Texas Panhandle is now the largest in state history, according to state figures Thursday. The fire has burned more than a million acres, destroyed cattle ranches, burned homes and continues to rage out of control.

Ranchers, some of whom battled the blaze themselves with pickups converted into makeshift fire trucks, watched as grasslands their livestock depended on for food were turned into rolling blackness. One rancher, Jeff Chisum, described walking with surviving calves past the charred remains of grown cows strewn along a road.

“It's hard to see,” Mr. Chisum said his farm is north of the city of Pampa and directly in the path of the fire that ignited Monday. His 30,000 acre farm was almost burnt down. “We love the animals and the country, and whenever something like this comes along and destroys everything, it's hard to swallow.”

The fire, known as the Smokehouse Creek Fire, is the largest of several burning a hole in the heart of Texas cattle country. As of Thursday morning, it was only 3 percent, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. The fire has so far burned at least 1,075,000 acres — five times the size of New York City — in the sparsely populated area, and surpassed the state's previous largest wildfire in 2006.

Firefighters have little time to battle the wildfires before high winds and hot, dry air are expected to return to the region over the weekend.

Firefighters from other parts of Texas have been dispatched to the area. Lubbock And Fort WorthTuesday under Gov. Greg Abbott's disaster declaration.

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“They've got a short window to deal with the wind before it picks up again,” said Edward Andrade, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Amarillo.

Weak winds and cooler temperatures expected to hover in the 30s and 40s could help firefighters Thursday, forecasters said. Light rain or snow is possible, but not enough to put out the fire, Mr. Andrade said.

Wind gusts of up to 30 mph were forecast for Saturday, and temperatures were expected to climb back into the 70s. Those conditions could continue into Sunday, speeding the fire's spread and hampering firefighting efforts, he said.

The rugged terrain of the Canadian River Valley where the fire started was another major obstacle for firefighters, as some of the area's cliffs, ravines and steep hills are inaccessible to fire engines.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire, along with other fires nearby, spread across at least 11 counties early Thursday, burning land used mainly for agriculture and ranching. Dozens of homes were destroyed or damaged by fire in Canadian Township, Hemphill County.

Among them was the home of the county sheriff, who returned Wednesday to find his home on Locust Street a pile of charred debris and white ash.

He said the community would bounce back, recounting how a resident had stopped earlier in the day to give him a hug and ask if he needed any food. “In this community, everyone pulls together,” he said. “Everyone will be fine.”

John Yoon And Miglena sternatori Contributed report.

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