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Fierce winds and dry weather threaten to worsen biggest wildfire in Texas’ history

The wildfire in Texas has already killed two people, demolished hundreds of structures and obliterated thousands of cattle as it became the biggest blaze in the state’s history. And now, weather conditions threaten to make things even worse.

Some 8 million people across the Central Plains are under “red flag” warnings and temperatures are above normal in the Texas Panhandle.

The Storm Prediction Center said a wide swath of the region on Saturday were under an elevated risk of fire activity – from western Texas to southeastern South Dakota, with a critical fire threat in the Texas Panhandle. About 4.5 million people fall into this risk zone, including residents of Denver and Colorado Springs in Colorado, and Lubbock and Amarillo in Texas.

So far, the Smokehouse Creek Fire has spread across more than 1 million acres and has become the biggest Texas wildfire on record.

The deadly inferno has also destroyed 31,600 acres in Oklahoma. It is only 15% contained. And the fire is just one of five blazes currently scorching the Texas Panhandle, destroying as many as 500 structures.

This weekend, the Central Plains is expected to see southwesterly winds gusting up to 55 mph Saturday and Sunday, with wind speeds peaking in the afternoon hours both days, when temperatures are at their hottest.

Sunday’s fire weather threat will be greatest for the Texas Panhandle and western Texas, according to the Storm Prediction Center.

Roughly 2 million people are at risk, including people in Lubbock, Amarillo, Midland and Odessa.

The latest developments

 Four more fires burning: The Windy Deuce Fire in Moore County has burned through 142,000 acres and was 60% contained as of Friday, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. The Grape Vine Creek Fire in Gray County has spread through 30,000 acres and is 60% contained. The Magenta Fire in Oldham County has destroyed 3,297 acres and is 85% contained. And the 687 Reamer fire in Hutchinson County has scorched 2,000 and is 10% contained. State officials said more than 120 miles of electric lines have been destroyed.

• Two deaths reported: Truck driver Cindy Owen was working about 50 miles north of Pampa, Texas, on Tuesday when she got caught in the Smokehouse Creek Fire, her sister-in-law told CNN. She left her truck and tried running for safety but died in the blaze, said Jennifer Mitchell, the wife of Owen’s brother, said. In nearby Hutchinson County, 83-year-old Joyce Blankenship was killed, her family said. “The house was gone,” her grandson Nathan Blankenship said. “There was no way she could’ve gotten out.”

• Blaze mangles state cattle industry: The fires are tearing through the Panhandle, which is home to 85% of the state’s cattle industry. The blaze has already killed thousands of cattle and has taken out other livestock, crops and equipment. State Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller on Saturday asked for hay and feed donations and prayers for residents who have lost homes and livestock. He expects the death toll for livestock to soar.

• Cause of fire under investigation: State officials said Friday they were investigating to find the origin of the massive Smokehouse Creek Fire and what caused it to ignite.

 Fire risk comes on holiday: The heightened fire risk comes as Texans celebrate the state’s Independence Day on Saturday, prompting urgent warnings from officials to exercise extreme caution when using fireworks.

• Weekend conditions could ignite large fire growth: Texas A&M Forest Service spokesman Jason Nedlo said fires could grow over the weekend due to weather affected by the Smokehouse Creek Fire, like strong winds and low humidity. Because the Texas Panhandle had higher-than-average rainfall this winter, there is more grass – fuel – to burn.

• How you can help: GoFundMe launched a platform for verified fundraisers benefiting people affected by wildfires in Texas. On the website, money is being collected for Texans who have lost homes, belongings and livestock. Hemphill County, where 400,000 acres have been burned and a truck driver was killed, is accepting wildlife relief supplies as well as monetary donations, according to the county’s AgriLife Extension Facebook page. In the city of Fritch, CCS Connect Community Services is accepting monetary donations for residents.

‘Utter devastation’ across Texas Panhandle

Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday as many as 500 structures were already discovered to have been destroyed so far by the fires and noted the devastation was unlike anything he’d seen before.

Sammy Schafer tosses a smoldering log into an area already burned after a massive wildfire ripped through the area near Canadian, Texas, on March 1, 2024. - Leah Millis/Reuters
Sammy Schafer tosses a smoldering log into an area already burned after a massive wildfire ripped through the area near Canadian, Texas, on March 1, 2024. - Leah Millis/Reuters

“Frequently, when you see the aftermath of that damage, there is some semblance of a structure that is still there,” Abbott said at a news conference. “When you look at the damages that are here, it’s just gone. Completely gone. Nothing left but ashes on the ground, so those who have gone through this have gone through utter devastation.”

He said at least 400 to 500 structures were lost but “there’s no way to say for certainty that that’s going to be the final number because there’s still the ongoing assessment process.”

In addition to homes and businesses, the infernos have destroyed over 100 miles of power lines.

Ranchers describe catastrophic losses

The blaze has dealt a massive blow to Texas’ well-established community of cattle farmers. More than 85% of the state’s cattle population is in the panhandle, according to Miller.

Horrifying videos show herds of cattle fleeing the smoke and flames.

Shane Pennington, a 56-year-old cattle farmer based near Canadian, told CNN he felt “angry” watching the flames threaten the farm he’s maintained for 20 years.

Pennington said as he watched the wildfire approach, he became more worried about his cattle than his own home. Despite his best efforts, he said there was no place to safely evacuate most of the animals.

Some of them are “cows that I raised right here,” he said. “It’s just hard to see them burn up.”

When he returned to the ranch, he found about 50 cattle dead. He said many of the surviving cows were blinded by the fire and some had burn injuries. “It just burned all the hair off them,” he said. “Their feet are coming off – their hooves, they’re bloody.”

Pennington added,“Even if they survive it, more than likely they’re gonna get pneumonia, they’re gonna get sick, they’re gonna die.” He said he’s already euthanized some animals and anticipates that number will continue growing.

“Your job is to keep them alive, not to destroy them,” he said. “It’s tough.”

In addition to being emotionally challenging, it will take years for the business to recover from the fire damage, Pennington said. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”

Miller said seven grain and seed dealers in the state have “completely lost everything, completely wiped out.”

“There’s no grass, there’s no water for the livestock,” the commissioner added. “We’ve lost over 3,000 head, which is a very small number. That will double or triple easily. We’ve got cattle that we’re going to have to euthanize because of the damage to their hooves, their udders – we’ll just have to put them down.”

CNN’s Gene Norman, Rebekah Riess, Sara Tonks, Eric Zerkel, Jamiel Lynch and Sarah Davis contributed to this report.

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