Some left helpless to watch as largest wildfire in Texas history devastates their town

STINNETT, Texas — When the largest wildfire in Texas history engulfed his town, Danny Phillips was left helpless.

“We had to watch from a few miles away as our neighborhood burned,” he said, his voice shaking with emotion.

In his hard-hit town of Stinnett, population about 1,600, families like him who evacuated after the Smokehouse Creek fire returned Thursday to scenes of devastation: melted street signs and charred frames of cars and trucks. Houses reduced to piles of ash and rubble. An American flag propped up outside a destroyed home.

Phillips’ one-story house was still standing, but some of his neighbors weren’t so lucky.

Stinnett’s devastation was a reminder that even as snow fell Thursday and firefighters helped, crews rushed to stamp out the fire ahead of expected higher temperatures and winds in the coming days.

The Smokehouse Creek fire has already killed two people and left a desolate landscape of scorched prairie, dead livestock and burned-out homes in the Texas Panhandle.

The fire grew to almost 4,400 square kilometers early Thursday. It has merged with another fire and is only 3% contained, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. The largest of several major fires in the rural Panhandle portion of the state has also reached Oklahoma.

Gray skies loomed over vast scars of blackened earth in a rural area dotted with brush, ranchland, rocky canyons and oil rigs. Firefighter Lee Jones helped put out the smoldering rubble of homes in Stinnett to prevent them from flaring up again when the weather turns on Friday and continues into the weekend.

“The snow helps,” said Jones, one of dozens of firefighters called for help from Lubbock. “We only hit all the hotspots in the city, the houses that have already burned down.”

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

“The rain and snow are useful right now – we’re using it to our advantage,” says Texas A&M Forest Service spokesman Juan Rodriguez said of the Smokehouse Creek fire. “If the fire is not flaring up and moving very quickly, firefighters can actually catch up and get to those parts of the fire.”

Authorities said 4,248 square miles of the fire was on the Texas side of the border. Previously, the largest fire in recorded state history was the 2006 East Amarillo Complex fire, which burned approximately 1,500 square miles (3,630 square kilometers) and resulted in 13 deaths.

Two women are the only confirmed deaths so far this week. But with flames still threatening a large area, authorities had yet to conduct a thorough search for the victims or map the numerous homes and other buildings that were damaged or destroyed.

Cindy Owen was driving in Texas’ Hemphill County, south of Canada, on Tuesday afternoon when she encountered fire or smoke, said Sgt. Chris Ray of the state Department of Public Safety. She got out of her truck and the flames overtook her.

A passerby found Owen and called first responders, who took her to a burn unit in Oklahoma. She died Thursday morning, Ray said.

The other victim, an 83-year-old woman, was identified by family members as Joyce Blankenship, a former substitute teacher. Her grandson, Lee Quesada, said officers told his uncle Wednesday that they had found Blankenship’s remains in her burned home.

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

“If there is a disaster, there are no red states or blue states where I come from,” Biden said. “Just communities and families seeking help. So we stand with everyone affected by these wildfires and we will continue to help you respond and recover.”

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has issued a disaster declaration for 60 counties and planned to visit the Panhandle on Friday.

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

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

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

“Here, the weather, we get to see all four seasons in one week,” Kalson said. “It can be hot, hot and windy, and the next day it will snow. It’s just that time of year.”

Advancing flames caused the main facility that dismantles the U.S. nuclear arsenal to halt operations on Tuesday evening, but it was back open for normal work on Wednesday. Mayor Tom Ray said that in the small town of Fritch, which lost hundreds of homes in a fire in 2014, 40 to 50 homes were destroyed this week.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller estimated that livestock deaths would be in the thousands, with more likely to follow.

“There will be livestock that we have to euthanize,” Miller said. “They’ll have burnt hooves, burnt udders.”

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


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.