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A wildfire scorching the Texas Panhandle has grown to the largest in state history

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STINNETT, Texas -

A dusting of snow covered a desolate landscape of scorched prairie, dead cattle and burned out homes in the Texas Panhandle on Thursday, giving firefighters brief relief in their desperate efforts to corral a blaze that has grown into the largest in state history.

The Smokehouse Creek fire grew to nearly 1,700 square miles (4,400 square kilometres). It merged with another fire and is just three-per-cent contained, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

Gray skies loomed over huge scars of blackened earth in a rural area dotted with scrub brush, ranchland, rocky canyons and oil rigs. In Stinnett, a town of about 1,600, someone propped up an American flag outside of a destroyed home.

Dylan Phillips, 24, said he hardly recognized his Stinnett neighborhood, which was littered with melted street signs and the charred frames of cars and trucks. His family's home survived, but at least a half a dozen others were smoking rubble.

“It was brutal," Phillips said. “The street lights were out. It was nothing but embers and flames.”

The Smokehouse Creek fire's explosive growth slowed Thursday as snow fell and winds and temperatures dipped, but it was still untamed and threatening. It is the largest of several major fires burning in the rural Panhandle section of the state. It has also crossed into Oklahoma.

Firefighter Lee Jones was helping douse the smoldering wreckage of homes in Stinnett to keep them from reigniting when temperatures and winds increase Friday and into the weekend.

“The snow helps,” said Jones, who was among a dozen firefighters called in from Lubbock to help. “We’re just hitting all the hot spots around town, the houses that have already burned.”

Authorities have not said what ignited the fires, but strong winds, dry grass and unseasonably warm temperatures fed the blazes.

“The rain and the snow is beneficial right now, we’re using it to our advantage,” Texas A&M Forest Service spokesman Juan Rodriguez said of the Smokehouse Creek fire. “When the fire isn’t blowing up and moving very fast, firefighters are able to actually catch up and get to those parts of the fire.”

Authorities said 1,640 square miles (4,248 square kilometres) of the fire were on the Texas side of the border. Previously, the largest fire in recorded state history was the 2006 East Amarillo Complex fire, which burned about 1,400 square miles (3,630 square kilometres) and resulted in 13 deaths.

An 83-year-old woman was the only confirmed death so far this week. But with flames still menacing a wide area, authorities have yet to conduct a thorough search for victims or tally the numerous homes and other structures damaged or destroyed.

Firefighters work through rubble of burned homes from the Smokehouse Creek fire in Stinnett, Texas on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. (Ty O'Neil/AP Photo)

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties. The encroaching flames caused the main facility that disassembles America’s nuclear arsenal to pause operations Tuesday night, but it was open for normal work Wednesday.

Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, said the weekend forecast and “sheer size and scope” of the blaze are the biggest challenges for firefighters.

“I don’t want the community there to feel a false sense of security that all these fires will not grow anymore,” Kidd said. “This is still a very dynamic situation.”

Jeremiah Kaslon, 39, a Stinnett resident who saw neighbors’ homes destroyed by flames that stopped just on the edge of his property, seemed prepared for what the changing forecast might bring.

“Around here, the weather, we get all four seasons in a week," Kalson said. "It can be hot, hot and windy, and it will be snowing the next day. It’s just that time of year.”

The woman who died was identified by family members as Joyce Blankenship, a former substitute teacher. Her grandson, Lee Quesada, said he had posted in a community forum asking if anyone could try and locate her. Quesada said deputies told his uncle on Wednesday that they had found Blankenship’s remains in her burned home.

Encroaching flames caused the main facility that disassembles America’s nuclear arsenal to pause operations Tuesday night, but it was open for normal work by Wednesday.

The small town of Fritch, north of Amarillo, lost hundreds of homes in a 2014 fire and appeared to be hit hard again. Mayor Tom Ray said Wednesday that an estimated 40-50 homes were destroyed on the southern edge of the town of 2,200.

Hemphill County Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Kendall said about 40 homes were burned near the town of Canadian, and described the charred terrain as being “like a moonscape. ... It's just all gone.”

Kendall also reported seeing "hundreds of cattle just dead, laying in the fields.”

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller estimated the number of cattle killed in the fires to be in the thousands, with more likely to come.

“There’ll be cattle that we’ll have to euthanize,” Miller said. “They’ll have burned hooves, burned udders.”

Miller said individual ranchers could suffer devastating losses, but predicted the overall impact on the Texas cattle industry would be minimal. Cattle raised in the Panhandle are largely “range cattle,” not feeder cattle that are sold to feed lots and eventually make their way to the kitchen table for consumption, he said.

Miller said any impact on the price of beef for consumers would be minimal, and at least a year away from being felt. 

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This story has been updated to correct Greg Downey's age. He is 57, not 30.

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Vertuno reported from Austin, Texas. Associated Press reporters Ken Miller in Oklahoma City, Lisa Baumann in Bellingham, Washington, and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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