Deadly wildfire grows into largest in state history: 'Utter devastation'

ByMorgan Winsor and Meredith Deliso ABCNews logo
Friday, March 1, 2024

Several large wildfires continue to tear through the Texas Panhandle, including one that has grown into the largest blaze in state history.

At least two people have died in the blazes so far, as the fire threat is expected to continue into the weekend.

An estimated 400 to 500 structures have been destroyed amid the fires, according to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who described the "utter devastation" in the Panhandle region.

"When you look at the damages that had occurred here, it's just gone. Completely gone," Abbott said during a press briefing on Friday. "Nothing left but ashes on the ground."

The largest of the blazes -- the Smokehouse Creek Fire -- covers an area larger than the size of Rhode Island. Since igniting in Hutchinson County, the flames have spread across state lines, with more than a million acres burned in Texas and 25,000 acres burned in Oklahoma.

Ninety percent of Roberts County is burned, according to W. Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

The cities of Fritch in Hutchinson County and Canadian in Hemphill County have also been especially impacted by the fire, though it has been difficult to assess the extent of structural damages there due to the smoldering fire, Kidd said.

Hot, dry, windy conditions earlier in the week helped produce the extreme wildfire event. There was no growth over most of Thursday due to some precipitation and lighter winds and the Smokehouse Creek Fire was 15% contained as of Friday morning, the Texas A&M Forest Service said.

The East Amarillo Complex Fire, which burned also in Hutchinson County in 2006, had been the largest in the state's history at just under 1 million acres, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Other fires being fought in the region include the Windy Deuce Fire, which ignited in Moore County and had burned an estimated 142,000 acres and was 50% contained as of Friday afternoon, fire officials said. The Grape Vine Fire that ignited in nearby Gray County had burned an estimated 30,000 acres and was 60% contained as of Friday afternoon, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

At least two people have died in the fires. Cindy Owen, 44, from Amarillo, who had been making deliveries, was caught up in the Smokehouse Creek Fire on Tuesday, Owen's sister-in-law Jennifer Mitchell told ABC News. Authorities found her alive outside the truck, and she was transported to an Oklahoma City burn unit, where she died Thursday morning, Mitchell said.

An 83-year-old woman died in Stinnett, Texas, earlier this week, according to The Associated Press. The family identified her as Joyce Blankenship, a retired school teacher, and said she'd been found in her burned-out home.

The Texas Panhandle is home to significant ranching and farming activity.

The raging wildfires have consumed swathes of the Turkey Track Ranch, a 120-year-old, 80,000-acre private property located along the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle. The sprawling, historic ranch has been up for sale and is listed at $180 million.

"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," managers of the Turkey Track Ranch Family Group said in a statement Wednesday. "Our early assessment estimates that The Turkey Track Ranch has suffered and lost approximately 80% of our pastures, plains, and creek bottom vegetation. We continue to assess the total damage to other infrastructure and the loss of livestock."

Abbott praised the "heroic response" by firefighters amid the historic fire.

"It would have been far worse and far more damaging, not just to property but to people, but for those firefighters," he said, noting that some of the firefighters were injured in the line of duty.

The governor declared a disaster declaration for 60 counties on Tuesday due to "widespread wildfire activity throughout the state." He said he plans to put in a request for a federal disaster declaration and is seeking other funds to "accelerate the recovery process."

"Recovery is a huge issue right now," he said. "We have people who don't have a home."

The Red Cross and other organizations are working with those who have been displaced, he said.

Unseasonably warm and windy weather is expected to return to the wildfire-ravaged region this weekend, creating ideal conditions for critical fire danger. Temperatures in the Texas Panhandle are forecast to surpass 70 and even 80 degrees Fahrenheit from Friday through Sunday, while wind gusts could be 30 to 45 mph.

Fire officials said they are preparing equipment and crews ahead of this weekend.

"We face enormous potential fire dangers as we head into this weekend," Abbott said Friday. "No one can let down their guard. Everyone must remain very vigilant."

ABC News' Max Golembo and Marilyn Heck contributed to this report.

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