climate change impact wildfires explained
Why climate change makes wildfires worse
01:01 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

As many as 500 structures have already been obliterated as the biggest wildfire in Texas history continues its deadly march across the state’s panhandle. And the devastation is far from over as the inferno is expected to spread more rapidly this weekend, with ferocious winds and drier air fueling the flames.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire has already killed two people, destroyed thousands of cattle and swallowed more than 1 million acres – becoming the biggest Texas wildfire on record. It’s also torched 31,500 acres in Oklahoma. As of Friday afternoon, the mammoth inferno was only 15% contained.

It’s one of four wildfires tearing across the Texas Panhandle this week, destroying families’ homes and leaving businesses in shambles. Together, the fires have scorched about the same square mileage as the entire state of Delaware.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said at least 400 to 500 structures have been lost, but “there’s no way to say for certain that that’s going to be the final number because there’s still the ongoing assessment process,” he said Friday afternoon.

“Frequently when you see the aftermath of that damage, there is some semblance of a structure that is still there,” Abbott said. “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.”

Lumber burns in a storage yard after the Smokehouse Creek Fire ravages Canadian, Texas.

The latest developments

• The second-largest blaze burning in Texas, the Windy Deuce Fire, has torched 142,000 acres and was 60% contained as of Friday, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

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

• The Magenta Fire has seared 3,300 acres and is 85% contained.

• GoFundMe announced a verified hub of fundraisers benefiting Texas wildfire victims.

• Red flag warnings have been issued for 8 million people across the Central Plains in states including Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma and Nebraska. The warnings issued by the National Weather Service signals a high risk of fire danger.

• After a brief slowdown Thursday due to lighter winds and some precipitation, the Smokehouse Creek Fire will likely spread faster this weekend as drier air and stronger winds sweep in.

• High temperatures in the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles will reach the 80s on Saturday and Sunday. Winds could gust up to 40 mph by Sunday, according to the National Weather Service office in Amarillo, Texas.

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

Firefighters from Lubbock, Texas, help put out the smoldering debris of a home destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire on Thursday in Stinnett, Texas.

• A staggering 400,000 acres have been burned in Hemphill County, where scores of homes have been destroyed and thousands of cattle have died, Hemphill County AgriLife Extension agent Andy Holloway said. A truck driver was killed in Hemphill County by the Smokehouse Creek fire, her family said.

• Another woman was killed when her home was destroyed in Hutchinson County, her family said. Search-and-rescue crews have started clearing neighborhoods in the county, and officials encouraged anyone with missing loved ones in the area to contact a Wildfire Information Line.

A satellite image shows Fritch, Texas in August 2023.
A satellite image shows damage to homes in Fritch, Texas on February 28.
Satellite images show homes in Fritch, Texas, before the fire (in August 2023), and after (on Wednesday).

• The city of Fritch, Texas, is under a boil water notice – though Hutchinson County officials acknowledged is it “hard to do since many residents are without electricity and or gas.” Water bottles are being distributed at several churches and other locations, officials said.

‘She basically couldn’t breathe … and didn’t make it’

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.

Truck driver Cindy Owen often pulled over to give people coats on cold days, her family said.

“She basically couldn’t breathe, and she evacuated the truck and tried to run for safety and didn’t make it,” said Jennifer Mitchell, the wife of Owen’s brother. “So she was found with burns, and it was about 90% of her body.”

Owen was on a video chat as the disaster unfolded, and family members scrambled to find someone to help her, Mitchell said.

But the inferno quickly overwhelmed her. Owen died as a result of the fire in Hemphill County, Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Chris Ray said.

Owen, 44, was devoted to her family and “would do anything for anybody,” including pulling over on cold days to give people coats, her sister-in-law said.

“She was everybody’s friend, and everybody knew her,” Mitchell said. “There’s nothing bad to say about her. She was the best person ever.”

‘There was no way she could’ve gotten out’

Joyce Blakenship, right, and her grandson Nathan Blakenship.

In nearby Hutchinson County, 83-year-old Joyce Blankenship was also killed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire, her family said.

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

The beloved grandmother was well-known in the small community of Stinnett, her step-grandson Lee Quesada said.

“She used to be a substitute teacher in the area before she became a housewife,” Quesada said. “She will be missed by all.”

A devastating impact on the cattle industry

The wildfires have killed thousands of cattle and destroyed vital equipment in the Texas Panhandle.

Firefighters battle the Smokehouse Creek Fire north of Canadian, Texas, on Wednesday, February 28, 2024 (AP Photo/David Erickson)

The 120-year-old Turkey Track Ranch – nicknamed the “Prize of the Panhandle” – estimates 80% of its nearly 80,000-acre property has been scorched.

“The loss of livestock, crops, and wildlife, as well as ranch fencing and other infrastructure throughout our property, 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.

But the group also expressed optimism: “Nature mends after fire and will grow again all the natural grasses, vegetation, and tree cover in our beloved ranch oasis.”

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

“These fires not only threaten lives and property but will also have a substantial impact on our agriculture industry,” Miller said. “Over 85% of the state’s cattle population is located on ranches in the Panhandle. There are millions of cattle out there, with some towns comprising more cattle than people.”

The Texas Farm Bureau has established the Texas Panhandle Wildfire Relief Fund to help farmers and ranchers impacted by the fires.

CNN’s Mary Gilbert, Andy Rose, Eric Zerkel and Steve Almasy contributed to this report.