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Deadly Texas wildfire torches 1 million acres – the largest blaze in state history – as more infernos rage

(CNN) — Catastrophic wildfires ripping across the Texas Panhandle have killed at least two people and threaten to destroy more homes, cattle and livelihoods as the biggest inferno in state history engulfs more land every minute.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire has now torched more than 1 million acres in Texas alone, making it the largest fire on record in the state. The blaze had also charred more than 31,500 acres in Oklahoma as of Thursday evening, that state’s forestry service said.

Altogether, the fire is among the largest in the Lower 48 since reliable record-keeping began in the 1980s.

The inferno is one of three fires burning in the Texas Panhandle – with no end in sight. Despite light precipitation in the area Thursday, dry air and ferocious winds are expected to return Friday and into the weekend – likely fueling the flames.

The wildfires have already scorched about 2,000 square miles – roughly the same amount of land as the entire state of Delaware.

Two people have been killed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire: Truck driver Cindy Owen perished after evacuating while on the road, her sister-in-law said; and in Hutchinson County, the fire claimed the life of 83-year-old Joyce Blankenship, her family said.

“The house was gone,” said her grandson Nathan Blankenship. “There was no way she could’ve gotten out.”

Latest developments

Power outages are a major concern as North Plains Electric Cooperative said it has “approximately 115 miles of line to rebuild.”

A telephone pole burns from the Smokehouse Creek Fire on Wednesday in Canadian, Texas. - David Erickson/AP
A telephone pole burns from the Smokehouse Creek Fire on Wednesday in Canadian, Texas. - David Erickson/AP

In Hemphill County alone, 400,000 acres are burned, scores of homes have been destroyed and thousands of cattle have died, Hemphill County AgriLife Extension agent Andy Holloway said. More than 85% of cattle in Texas are raised in the Panhandle, according to agricultural officials.

In addition to the mammoth Smokehouse Creek Fire, the Windy Deuce Fire in Texas has torched 142,000 acres and was 50% contained as of early Thursday afternoon.

• The portion of the Smokehouse Creek Fire that jumped into Oklahoma is now 40% contained there, Oklahoma Forestry Services spokesperson Keith Merckx told CNN on Thursday evening.

The Grape Vine Creek Fire has charred 30,000 acres and is 60% contained.

The Magenta Fire is also still burning and has seared 2,500 acres and is 65% contained.

The 687 Reamer Fire burned more than 2,000 acres before merging into the Smokehouse Creek Fire Thursday.

President Joe Biden committed to helping those affected by the wildfires Thursday, while also using his remarks to call out his “Neanderthal friends” who don’t believe in climate change.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott authorized additional state resources to fight the blazes, including 94 fire fighting personnel, 33 fire engines and six air tankers.

A ranch with a 120-year history says about 80% of its nearly 80,000 acres have burned. The Turkey Track Ranch, nicknamed the Prize of the Panhandle, is also the site of Battles of Adobe Walls of 1864 and 1874. “The loss of livestock, crops and wildlife, … as well as other ranches and homes across the region is, we believe, unparalleled in our history,” the Turkey Track Ranch Family Group said in a statement.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire has covered around 98% of 5,394 acres of the Gene Howe Wildlife Management Area, which is located along the Canadian River in the Northern Rolling Plains of Hemphill County, according to a news release from Texas Parks & Wildlife.

At least 13 homes have been destroyed in Oklahoma, a state emergency spokesperson told CNN. Gov. Kevin Stitt has activated emergency response teams. “As we keep a close eye on wildfires across the state, the safety of our fellow Oklahomans is the top priority,” he posted on X.

• Two firefighters for the Texas Panhandle city of Pampa, in Gray County, were treated for minor injuries sustained battling the blazes Monday night, Pampa Community Services Director Dustin Miller told CNN on Thursday.

The city of Fritch, Texas, is under a boil water notice but that is “hard to do since many residents are without electricity and or gas,” Hutchinson County announced. Water bottles are being given away at several churches and other locations, officials said.

Amarillo National Bank is starting a Panhandle Disaster Relief Fund for wildfire victims with a $1 million donation, according to a release from the financial institution.

A ‘massive wall of fire’

The Smokehouse Creek Fire exploded in size after a sudden shift of wind direction Tuesday. As of Thursday, it’s still only 3% contained in Texas.

“Wind was coming straight out of the north and made just this massive wall of fire moving across the landscape,” Texas A&M Forest Service spokesperson Adam Turner said Wednesday.

Greenville Fire-Rescue firefighters drive near the Smokehouse Creek Fire as it threatens the Texas towns of Canadian and Wheeler on Tuesday. - Greenville Fire-Rescue
Greenville Fire-Rescue firefighters drive near the Smokehouse Creek Fire as it threatens the Texas towns of Canadian and Wheeler on Tuesday. - Greenville Fire-Rescue

In the town of Fritch, which was threatened by several wildfires, Frank Probst made sure elderly neighbors could escape before evacuating himself – with almost no time to spare.

“Our main concern was getting them out first. We were the last ones out,” Probst told CNN.

His family wasn’t able to grab any of their belongings before fleeing the devastating inferno.

“It happened so quick. By the time the evacuation sirens went off, it was too late,” he said. “We just jumped in the car and took off.”

Mason Holloway and Hugh Lively sift through the remains of a relative's home destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Canadian, Texas, on Wednesday. - Nick Oxford/Reuters
Mason Holloway and Hugh Lively sift through the remains of a relative's home destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Canadian, Texas, on Wednesday. - Nick Oxford/Reuters

She went back for dogs as homes burned

Tyler McCain and his family woke up Tuesday to smoky skies over Fritch, so they went across town to his grandparents, he said. When it became clear the fires were getting bad, McCain’s wife returned to the family home to get their two dogs.

As she arrived to her block, she saw the homes of two neighbors on fire. She retrieved the pets and the family stayed overnight in Amarillo.

On Wednesday, the parents and their three girls returned to a pile of ash and rubble.

Tyler McCain's home has been reduced to charred rubble. - Courtesy Tyler McCain
Tyler McCain's home has been reduced to charred rubble. - Courtesy Tyler McCain

A tearful McCain told CNN that seeing his 3-year-old daughter, Addison, cry over their house has broken him. “Stuff can be replaced, but it’s hard to see your kids get ripped out of their life like that,” he said.

Addison can’t stop asking about losing her home. “She keeps talking about all the stuff we’ve lost and now she’s saying, ‘Daddy, are you going to build me a new house?’”

McCain regrets not grabbing enough stuff before they had to evacuate. “Everything she keeps asking for I ask myself why I didn’t grab that? Her favorite stuffed animal, why didn’t I get it for her?” he said.

In Hutchinson County – where the Smokehouse Creek, Windy Deuce and 687 Reamer fires are burning – at least 20 structures in Stinnett, some outside Borger city and “quite a few structures” in Fritch were destroyed, a county official said Wednesday.

Probst, the Fritch resident who helped his neighbors then fled, said he returned to his neighborhood Wednesday. His home, purchased just six months ago, is gone, as are entire neighborhoods he drove past on his way to Amarillo, where his family will stay until they figure out what is next.

Victim was ‘one of a kind’, sister-in-law says

Truck driver Cindy Owen, 44, was working about 50 miles north of Pampa, Texas, on Tuesday when the Smokehouse Creek Fire swept through the area, her sister-in-law told CNN.

“She basically couldn’t breathe and she evacuated the truck and tried to run for safety and didn’t make it,” said Jennifer Mitchell, who is married to Owen’s brother.

Owen was on a video chat as this was happening, so family members scrambled to find someone to help her, according to Mitchell.

“She was found with burns and it was about 90% of her body,” Mitchell said.

An undated photo of Cindy Owen. - Family photo
An undated photo of Cindy Owen. - Family photo

Hemphill County rescuers reached Owen and took her to the INTEGRIS Burn Center in Oklahoma City for treatment, Mitchell said.

“She fought all day (Wednesday) … We were really positive at the end of the day, her vitals were turning around, and she could hear us even though she was sedated and on a ventilator,” Mitchell said. “But she fought ‘til the last minute … and that’s who she was.”

Her sister-in-law didn’t make it through the night.

Mitchell had known Owen for 16 years, she said. “Cindy was just Cindy. She was one of a kind,” Mitchell said. “She would do anything for anybody.”

She would pull over and give people coats when it was cold, give food, money or clothes to homeless people and would help stray dogs, Mitchell said. And Owen was devoted to her large family.

“She showed up to everybody’s birthday parties and everybody’s kids’ stuff,” Mitchell said. “She was everybody’s friend and everybody knew her. … There’s nothing bad to say about her. She was the best person ever.”

Owen is survived by her fiancée, Elaine Sanchez, Mitchell said.

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Brandon Miller, Caroll Alvarado, Amanda Jackson, Monica Garrett, Sharif Paget, Sara Tonks, Lucy Kafanov, Andi Babineau, Andy Rose, Mary Gilbert, Samantha Waldenberg and Christina Zdanowicz contributed to this report.

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