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Texas Wildfires: Firefighters Rush to Control Blaze Ahead of Warm Weather


A vast and growing wildfire, one of several burning in the Texas Panhandle, has now become the largest on record in state history, scorching more than a million acres, devastating cattle ranches, consuming homes and continuing to rage out of control.

The sparsely populated area is home to most of the state’s cattle — millions of cows and calves, steers and bulls — spread across ranches whose very size and lack of roadways can make them difficult for people to traverse and easy for fires to take hold.

Wildfires are nothing new for Panhandle ranchers, many of whom know how to transform their pickups into makeshift fire trucks in order to battle the blazes that periodically flare.

But never before had anyone seen a fire quite like the one given the name Smokehouse Creek. It ignited on Monday, and as of Thursday it was still burning uncontrolled.

Ranchers have been forced to watch as the grasslands that their cattle rely on for food have been transformed into a blackened expanse. Thousands of cattle may have already died or been so injured in the blazes that they would have to be killed, said the state agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller.

Even those whose cattle survived have been left scrambling for a place for their herds to eat. Mr. Miller said a rancher he knew had 1,500 head of steer but “no grass and no water” and was in a desperate situation.

“He’s looking for a place to relocate his cattle,” he said, using trucks to move them. “He’ll have to go out of state, Kansas or Nebraska or Wyoming.”

The economic toll of the wildfires was not yet clear. Mr. Miller said some 85 percent of the roughly 12 million cattle in Texas are in the Panhandle, but most of them are kept concentrated in feedlots and dairy farms. Those operations, he said, were largely unaffected by the fires.

The cattle ranchers who were hardest hit were those with broad properties where cattle roam across land that can stretch to tens of thousands of acres.

“Just my prediction, but it will be 10,000 that will have died or we’ll have to euthanize,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s sad. A lot of those cattle are still alive but the hooves are burned off, the teats on their udders are burned off. It’s just a sad, sad situation.”

One such rancher, Jeff Chisum, said that he was still assessing how many of his 600 cows had been lost. He had come across the remains some and others that had to be put down.

“It’s hard to watch,” said Mr. Chisum, whose ranch is north of the town of Pampa and directly in the path of the largest fire. Nearly all of his 30,000-acre ranch was burned.

On Facebook, his wife, Leigh Chisum, said she had “driven by baby calves standing alone in the black, desolate pastures with dead cows scattered along the roads.” She added: “So many have lost so much.”

In addition to the ranchers, residents in towns like Fritch and Canadian that dot the landscape, small communities oriented around the land and local churches, lost homes and almost everything else. One death has been connected to the fires: Joyce Blankenship, an 83-year-old woman who was at home on the outskirts of the town of Stinnett when fast-moving flames came through on Tuesday.

One of her sons, Paul Blankenship, tried to rush to her as soon as he learned through Facebook that the fire had “jumped over the highway” and had begun to engulf the area around her house. But the roads had already been closed. The fire was too much.

“She was a good mother, and kept us fed,” said Mr. Blankenship, 65, whose family has lived in the area since 1958. “She loved us.”

At a church in Fritch that has served as a shelter, Emryn Nixon, 7, sat hugging her teddy bear alongside her father, mother and her three younger siblings. Their house had been consumed by the flames.

Her mother, Allie Matthews, 23, said that the only thing she could identify in the smoldering remains of the house that had been in her husband’s family for nearly a half-century was a metal sign belonging to Emryn. The 7-year-old said her grandmother “dropped to her knees” when she saw the home was gone.

“I feel really sad for my Nana because all her memories were in that house,” she said.

Despite a light rain and snow falling in some areas on Thursday, the Smokehouse Creek fire was only 3 percent contained, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. The fire has so far burned at least 1,075,000 acres — more than five times the size of New York City — and has surged beyond the size of the state’s previous biggest wildfire, in 2006.

The cause of the blaze was not immediately known, but on Thursday a utility company, Xcel Energy, said in a regulatory filing that it had been sued by property insurers in connection with the fire.

Firefighters deployed from around the state were working with a limited amount of time to battle the wildfires before higher winds and hotter, drier air were expected to return to the area over the weekend.

Forecasters said that firefighters could be aided on Thursday by weaker winds and cooler temperatures, which were expected to hover in the 30s and 40s. But Edward Andrade, the lead forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Amarillo, said the light rain would probably not be enough to dampen the fires.

Strong winds of around 30 miles an hour were expected to return on Saturday, and temperatures were forecast to rise back to the 70s. Those conditions were likely to continue on Sunday, and could accelerate the fire’s spread and hinder firefighting efforts, Mr. Andrade said.

The rugged terrain of the Canadian River Valley, where the fire started, was another major obstacle for firefighters, because fire trucks cannot navigate some of the cliffs, valleys and steep hills in the area.

The Smokehouse Creek fire, combined with other nearby fires, spanned at least 11 counties early Thursday and stretched into Oklahoma.

Mr. Blankenship, whose mother died in the fires, said the last time he had seen a fire like the one that ravaged his area was around 20 years ago. During that blaze, he said, he had been able to drive to his mother’s house to get her — and just barely made it after struggling to find the turn to her house.

“The smoke was so bad I couldn’t find the turn off, and about that time the fire crossed over the highway and almost got my Jeep,” he said. “But I managed to get there and get my mom out of there before everything burned.”

He tried to do the same on Tuesday. But could not.

John Yoon and Ivan Penn contributed reporting.

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