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Firefighters battling ‘monster’ Texas wildfire contend with strong winds and heat as residents grapple with lost homes

By Dalia Faheid and Camila Bernal, CNN

(CNN) — The biggest inferno in Texas history was being fueled by winds and high temperatures as it raged Sunday, threatening to incinerate more buildings, cattle and livelihoods across the Texas Panhandle while residents sift through ashes of what used to be homes.

Critical fire weather conditions continued Sunday in the area, with one wind gust of 59 mph measured near the town of Texline, the National Weather Service reported. The Panhandle is under a red flag warning, according to the weather service. “Conditions will be favorable for rapid rates of fire growth and spread,” the agency said in its forecast.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire has been burning for nearly a week and has torched more than 1 million acres in Texas alone, making it the largest fire on record in the state – and it is only 15% contained. The fire, just one of five large blazes scorching the Texas Panhandle, has already killed two people and destroyed over 500 structures, state officials said Saturday. Others have been left without electricity as more than 120 miles of electric lines have been destroyed.

On Sunday, a new blaze, the 300-acre Roughneck Fire, had prompted officials to call for evacuations in the Hutchinson County town of Sanford, but fire crews were able to establish lines they believed would hold, according to Deidra Thomas, a spokesperson who posted a video on the City of Borger/Hutchinson County Office of Emergency Management Facebook page.

“You’re going to continue to see smoke; you’re going to continue to see flames,” she said to residents who wanted to return, adding some proactive fires will be set by fire fighters through the night to prevent the existing fire from going farther.

Fire activity on the Smokehouse, Windy Deuce and Grapevine Creek fires picked up Saturday, due to weather conditions, Blue Team Operations Section Chief Mike Brod said in a video update posted to Facebook on Sunday morning.

Because the Texas Panhandle had higher-than-average rainfall this winter, there is more grass – or fuel – to burn. Crews hope that, after the weekend, they will inch closer to containment, Texas A&M Forest Service spokesman Jason Nedlo said.

High temperatures into the upper 70s are forecast in the area through Sunday, with a slight decrease Monday into the upper 60s, keeping temperatures well above average.

Latest developments

• Officials work to identify hotspots: Fire officials used aviation assets to respond to flare-ups over the weekend, including a heat-detection flight to help pinpoint additional hotspots, Brod said.

 Four more fires burning: The Windy Deuce Fire in Moore County has burned through 144,000 acres and is 55% contained as of Sunday evening, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. The Grape Vine Creek Fire in Gray County has spread through almost 35,000 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 acres and is 10% contained.

• 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, according to Jennifer Mitchell, the wife of Owen’s brother. 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 hits 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.

• Oklahoma finding success in Smokehouse fire battle: “The Smokehouse Creek Fire perimeter looks good and will be turned back over to local departments tomorrow,” Oklahoma Forestry Services spokesperson Keith Merckx said Sunday. “The fire will be 75% contained by the end of shift today.” More than 31,000 acres have burned in Oklahoma near the border with Texas, according to the service.

• 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.

Family sifts through ashes of lost home

All that was left of Susan and Ronnie Johnson’s five-bedroom ranch near Fritch was the ashes of what was their home of two decades. A dining table, pieces of white fine china, blue and red Dutch ovens, chairs and a smoker could be seen amidst a devastated background of dust, rubble and fallen trees.

Their home was surrounded by fire on Tuesday – and they tried desperately to save it – only to watch it all go up in flames.

“You don’t ever want to believe it’ll be your house that burns,” Ronnie told CNN.

“We’ve seen others so we’ll rebuild and start again.”

Susan described losing her home as “numbing,” but said it won’t mean losing her memories of where her family of nine lived.

Tyler McCain also lost his family home in the fires that roared through Fritch.

When McCain saw flames engulf the field across from his family’s home before they evacuated, he was faced with the anticipation of returning, not knowing if their house was still standing.

“Until I saw my house, it wasn’t it wasn’t real,” McCain told CNN’s Danny Freeman.

Gov. Greg Abbott described widespread devastation during a news conference on Friday.

“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.”

‘Devastating’ losses for farmers

State Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller asked for hay and feed donations and prayers for residents who have lost homes and livestock in the “monster” fire, saying he expects the death toll for livestock to soar.

“It’s been very devastating,” Miller told CNN’s Omar Jimenez on Sunday, adding more than 500 structures were lost.

“There’s no grass, there’s no water for all the livestock,” Miller 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 euthanized because of the damage to their hooves, their udders – we’ll just have to put them down.”

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

“It’s great damage here,” he said.

Hemphill County had reported over a thousand missing or dead cattle and several dead horses, goats, and sheep, Miller said in a news release on Friday, adding that numbers in Hemphill County and other impacted areas are expected to rise as the fire subsides and assessment can be conducted.

Andy Holloway, of Hemphill County AgriLife Extension, told CNN on Sunday: “The cattle that these ranchers have, have … greatly been burned up and so this is going to hurt our beef supply going forward in the nation.”

The-CNN-Wire
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CNN’s Joe Sutton, Melissa Alonso, Rebekah Riess and Jamiel Lynch contributed to this report.

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