'Utter devastation;' Texas wildfires destroy at least 400 buildings so far: Live updates

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Hundreds of structures have been destroyed by the largest wildfire in Texas state history, which continued to rage Friday as forecasters warned more dangerous weather is coming this weekend.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire has already torn through over 1 million acres of land. It is just one of several wildfires burning in the Texas Panhandle and across state lines into Oklahoma.

Rain and snow that fell Thursday helped firefighters get more of a handle on the massive inferno, which was 15% contained on Friday, up from 3% the day before, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

"Most of the fire received some precipitation yesterday and there was no fire growth," the forest service said.

Gov. Greg Abbott said in a news conference Friday afternoon that between 400 and 500 structures burned down, according to early assessments, but investigators are still working to determine the true toll.

"When you look at the damages that have occurred here, it’s just gone, completely gone. Nothing left but ashes on the ground," Abbott said. "Those who are affected by this have gone through utter devastation."

Two women have been reported dead in the wildfires, but officials haven't yet done a thorough search of burned areas to look for victims. A handful of firefighters also suffered injuries, including three who were treated for burns and released from hospitals, said W. Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

President Joe Biden, in Texas on Thursday to visit the U.S.-Mexico border, said he directed federal officials to do “everything possible” to assist fire-affected communities, including sending firefighters and equipment. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has guaranteed Texas and Oklahoma will be reimbursed for their emergency costs, the president said.

“When disasters strike, there’s no red states or blue states where I come from,” Biden said. “Just communities and families looking for help. So we’re standing with everyone affected by these wildfires and we’re going to continue to help you respond and recover.”

Snow covers a home that was destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Stinnett, Texas on Feb. 29, 2024. The wildfire spreading across the Texas Panhandle became the largest in state history.(AP Photo/Ty O'Neil) ORG XMIT: RPTO110
Snow covers a home that was destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Stinnett, Texas on Feb. 29, 2024. The wildfire spreading across the Texas Panhandle became the largest in state history.(AP Photo/Ty O'Neil) ORG XMIT: RPTO110

More fire weather expected this weekend

A round of light rain and snow fell in the area on Thursday, giving firefighters more favorable conditions to battle flames. But the relief was only short-lived as forecasters warn of increased fire danger starting later Friday.

The National Weather Service in Amarillo, Texas, said Friday that "elevated fire weather conditions" were expected to develop by afternoon in the western and southern Texas Panhandle, with critical conditions developing Saturday and lasting through Sunday night.

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

In the Texas Panhandle, where the Smokehouse Creek Fire and others are burning, the land is flat, grassy and brush-filled, giving any fires that do start ample fuel to burn.

On Saturday, the grass will be very dry, winds will bring up to 40mph gusts and humidity will be under 10%, the weather service said, warning people not to engage in any activities outdoors that could spark flames.

"Over a million acres have already burned – please don't make it worse," the weather service in Amarillo said.

2 women identified as fire victims

Officials said one woman died Thursday morning of injuries sustained on Tuesday from the fire. Cindy Owen was driving in Hemphill County, south of the town of Canadian, when she encountered fire or smoke, according to Department of Public Safety Sgt. Chris Ray. She got out of her truck and was overtaken by flames. A passerby found her and called first responders, who took her to a burn unit in Oklahoma, where she later died.

Owen's sister-in-law told CNN that she had been on a video call with family members when she was caught in the fire, and family members scrambled to find help.

“She basically couldn’t breathe, and she evacuated the truck and tried to run for safety and didn’t make it,” Jennifer Mitchell said. “So she was found with burns, and it was about 90% of her body.”

“She was everybody’s friend, and everybody knew her,” Mitchell said. “There’s nothing bad to say about her. She was the best person ever.”

The other victim was identified by family members as 83-year-old Joyce Blankenship, a former substitute teacher. Her grandson, Lee Quesada, said deputies told his uncle on Wednesday that her remains were found in her burned home.

Thousands of cattle killed in Texas blaze

The record-breaking fires that scorched miles of land in the Texas Panhandle have also killed thousands of cattle, officials said this week.

"Over 85% of the state’s cattle population is located on ranches in the panhandle," said Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. "There are millions of cattle out there, with some towns comprising more cattle than people. The losses could be catastrophic for those counties."

Miller estimated thousands of cattle have died from the fires, and those severely injured will have to be euthanized.

The Texas Department of Agriculture is seeking donations for its State of Texas Agriculture Relief Fund, or STAR Fund, to assist farmers and ranchers in the Panhandle.

Miller said individual ranchers could suffer devastating losses, but he predicted the overall impact on the Texas cattle industry and consumer prices for beef would be minimal.

Texas' largest fires in history

Before the Smokehouse Creek Fire took the title, the largest fire in Texas state history was the East Amarillo Complex fire. The fire ignited in Hutchinson County on March 12, 2006, and blazed through more than 907,000 acres, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

It also caused 13 fatalities, making it the deadliest in the state's history.

Historically, slightly more than 1% of the state’s land has burned each decade since 1984. Climate models project an increase as soil and vegetation become drier by 2100.

Contributing: Cybele Mayes-Osterman, Elizabeth Weise and Dinah Voyles Pulver, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Smokehouse Creek Fire destroys hundreds of buildings. Live updates