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Firefighters Face Difficult Weather Conditions as They Battle the Largest Wildfire in Texas History

STINNETT, Texas (AP) — Firefighters battling the largest wildfire in Texas history face increasingly difficult weather conditions on Saturday.

The Smokehouse Creek Fire that began Monday has killed at least two people, left a charred landscape of scorched prairie, dead cattle and destroyed as many as 500 structures, including burned-out homes, in the Texas Panhandle.

The National Weather Service in Amarillo has issued a red flag warning for the entire Panhandle from late Saturday morning through midnight Sunday after rain and snow on Thursday allowed firefighters to contain a portion of the fire.

“A combination of strong winds, low relative humidity and warm temperatures will create favorable weather for rapid fire growth and spread,” according to the weather service’s forecast.

Cattle killed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire are seen on burned ranch land, Friday, March 1, 2024, in Skellytown, Texas. The wildfire, which started Monday, has left behind a charred landscape of scorched prairie, dead cattle and burned-out homes in the Texas Panhandle. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

“Critical fire weather conditions are expected to return … as winds out of the southwest gust to 40 to 45 mph and humidity drops below 10 percent,” the forecast said, with a high temperature of 75 degrees F (24 degrees C).

The fire, which has merged with another fire and crossed the state line into western Oklahoma, has burned more than 1,700 square miles (4,400 square kilometers) and was 15% contained, the Texas A&M Forest Service said Friday.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, although strong winds, dry grass and unseasonably warm weather fed the flames.

“Everybody needs to understand that we face enormous potential fire dangers as we head into this weekend,” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday after touring the area. “No one can let down their guard. Everyone must remain very vigilant.”

Calves killed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire are loaded onto a dump truck as the cleanup process begins, Friday, March 1, 2024, in Skellytown, Texas. The wildfire, which started Monday, has left behind a charred landscape of scorched prairie, dead cattle and burned-out homes in the Texas Panhandle. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Two women were confirmed killed by the fires this week. But with flames still menacing a wide area, authorities haven’t yet thoroughly searched for victims or tallied homes and other structures damaged or destroyed.

Two firefighters were injured battling the flames in Oklahoma. One suffered a heat-related injury and the other was injured when the brush pumper he was riding in struck a tanker truck as the two were heading to fight the fire near Gage.

Both firefighters are expected to recover.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said individual ranchers could suffer devastating losses due to the fires, but predicted the overall impact on the Texas cattle industry and consumer beef prices would be minimal.

A cow killed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire is removed by a rancher as the cleanup process begins Friday, March 1, 2024, in Skellytown, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

The number of dead cattle was not known, but Miller and local ranchers estimate the total will be in the thousands.

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By SEAN MURPHY and JIM VERTUNO Associated Press

Vertuno reported from Austin, Texas. Associated Press journalists Ty O’Neil in Stinnett, Texas, Jamie Stengle in Dallas, and Ken Miller in Oklahoma City contributed.

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