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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Texas continues battling second-largest wildfire in U.S. history, officials say

Bricks litter the ground near a car destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire on Thursday in Canadian, Texas. The wildfire has become the largest in state history at over one million acres.  (Elías Valverde II/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)
By Lana Ferguson Dallas Morning News

PAMPA, Texas – Wildfires continued to engulf the Texas Panhandle and parts of Oklahoma on Friday as officials were concerned warming temperatures and growing winds may elevate fire conditions going into the weekend.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire, which ignited Monday, has burned through more than 1 million acres becoming the largest wildfire in state history. The fire was 15% contained as of Friday morning, officials said, a large increase from 3% the previous day.

Firefighters were stationed throughout the Panhandle and would likely be focusing some efforts on the northwest area of the fire, forest service spokesperson Juan Rodriguez told the Dallas Morning News.

“There was an increase in containment yesterday,” he said. “That percent of 1 million acres may not seem like a lot but it’s going to take a while.”

The fire – which grew in size after merging with a smaller 687 Reamer fire – is among the largest in the Lower 48 since record-keeping began in the 1980s. The West Odessa Volunteer Fire Department noted on Facebook that the fire is the second largest in U.S. history.

Two deaths have been reported as of Thursday. Joyce Blankenship, 83, was killed in her home in Stinnett, her family said. Cindy Owens died of injuries she suffered in the fires near Pampa, according to a GoFundMe.

As the sun rose Friday, melting away any snow leftover from the day before, signs of the devastation were left behind in the fires’ tracks.

A herd of cattle grazed beneath a small windmill on a ranch bordering state highway 70 in Roberts County while dead cows lay nearby along the fence line, one of the visible contrasts of where the fire scorched and the areas that were spared.

The region is known for its agriculture with its ranches being home to more than 80% of the state’s cattle. Officials say hundreds and thousands of cattle died in the fires.

Some roads that were closed earlier in the week as crews responded to hot spots and lineman worked to fix power lines were reopened Friday. North Plains Electric Cooperative said Wednesday it had about 115 miles of line to rebuild.

Officials haven’t declared a cause for the cluster of blazes, but the region has experienced unseasonably warm temperatures, dry conditions and gusty winds.

Gov. Greg Abbott visited in Borger Friday afternoon, speaking with local officials about what immediate and long-term assistance they need.

About 400 to 500 structures have been destroyed in the fire, according to early assessments. He said that number could rise.

Abbott and Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd praised the response of firefighters and local leadership, saying the fires would be much worse without their early and continued efforts.

“What we have observed in this entire Panhandle region is the aggregate of persistence, perseverance, prayer, resilience and just an extraordinary response to those in danger,” he said.

Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties Tuesday and directed the Texas Division of Emergency Management to deploy additional state emergency resources the following day.

Firefighting crews from across the state traveled to the Panhandle to combat the flames, including 12 Dallas Fire-Rescue personnel and 15 Fort Worth firefighters.

Evacuations were ordered for nearly a dozen towns. Some of those orders were lifted or reduced to voluntary evacuations with checkpoints.

A few fires were still burning across the Panhandle, according to the latest updates from the Texas A&M Forest Service:

• The Smokehouse Creek Fire in Hutchinson County is an estimated 1,075,000 acres and 15% contained.

• The Windy Deuce Fire in Moore County is roughly 142,000 acres and 55% contained.

• The Grapevine Creek Fire in Gray County was about 30,000 acres and 60% contained.

–The Magenta Fire in Oldham County is estimated to be 3,300 acres and 85% contained.

Crews hoped to make progress on containing the fires Wednesday and Thursday as conditions were more favorable to suppressing the flames. Snow and sleet helped spread moisture into areas that needed it the most and were hard for firefighters to reach due to the topography.

Fire conditions were expected to elevate into the weekend with the combination of high winds, rising temperatures and decreasing humidity.