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 the state’s history, according to state figures on Thursday. The fire has scorched more than a million acres of land, devastating cattle ranches, consuming homes and continuing to rage out of control.

Ranchers, some of whom battled the flames on their own with pickups transformed into makeshift fire trucks, have watched as the grasslands that their cattle rely on for food were transformed into a rolling blackened expanse. One rancher described walking with surviving calves past the charred remains of adult cows scattered along a road.

“It’s hard to watch,” said Jeff Chisum, a rancher north of the town of Pampa and directly in the path of the fire, which ignited on Monday. Nearly all of his 30,000-acre ranch was burned. “We’re in love with the animals and the country, and whenever something like this comes through and destroys it all, it’s hard to swallow.”

The fire, called the Smokehouse Creek fire, is the largest of several that are burning a hole in the heart of Texas cattle country. It was only 3 percent contained on Thursday morning, 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 — in a sparsely populated area, and has surged beyond the size of the state’s previous biggest wildfire, in 2006.

Firefighters have a limited amount of time to battle the wildfires before higher winds and hotter, drier air are expected to return to the area over the weekend.

Firefighters have been deployed to the region from other parts of Texas, including some from as far away as Lubbock and Fort Worth, under Gov. Greg Abbott’s disaster declaration on Tuesday.

“They’ve got a short window to try to get a handle on it before the winds ramp up again,” said Edward Andrade, the lead forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Amarillo.

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. There was a slight chance of light rain or snow, though Mr. Andrade said it would not be enough to dampen the fires.

Strong winds of around 30 miles an hour were forecast to return on Saturday, and temperatures were expected 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, he 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, in land often used for farming and cattle ranching. In the town of Canadian in Hemphill County, fires destroyed or damaged dozens of homes.

Among those was the home of the county sheriff, who returned on Wednesday to find his house on Locust Street in Canadian reduced to a pile of charred debris and white ash.

He said the community would rebound, describing how a resident had stopped earlier in the day to give him a hug and ask if he needed any food. “In this community, everyone pulls together,” he said. “Everybody will be OK.”

John Yoon and Miglena Sternadori contributed reporting.

First appeared on www.nytimes.com

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