Texas town evacuated as firefighters battle state’s biggest ever wildfire

<span>Firefighters battle flames from the Smokehouse Creek fire on Sunday near Sanford, Texas. An evacuation order was issued for the town’s residents.</span><span>Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images</span>
Firefighters battle flames from the Smokehouse Creek fire on Sunday near Sanford, Texas. An evacuation order was issued for the town’s residents.Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Firefighters in Texas are battling strong winds and warm temperatures as they work to stop the largest wildfire in state history.

The large Smokehouse Creek fire was 15% contained and two other fires were 60% contained. Authorities have not said what ignited the fires, but strong winds, dry grass and unseasonably warm temperatures fed the blazes.

The winds spread flames and prompted the evacuation of one town over the weekend, while airplanes dropped fire retardant over the northern Texas panhandle.

The fires have caused unprecedented destruction – burning across more than 1,900 sq miles (4,921 sq km) in rural areas and farmland surrounding Amarillo, while the largest blaze spilled into neighboring Oklahoma.

At least two people have died, Cindy Owen, 44, and Joyce Blankenship, 83, and thousands of horses, goats and cattle have been killed or euthanized after suffering severe burns and smoke inhalation.

Related: Texas wildfire: strong winds continue to thwart firefighters’ efforts to contain blaze

So far five major fires have burned across the Panhandle destroying up to 500 homes and businesses, state officials said. A new conflagration dubbed the Roughneck fire began in Hutchinson county on Sunday.

Cooler temperatures and calmer winds were set to arrive in the region on Monday and predicted to last through Tuesday, which could give authorities a chance to get a better grip on the emergency.

A Texas A&M forest service spokesperson, Jason Nedlo, told CNN that the blazes had so far been feeding on plentiful fuel, including thick grass grown after higher-than-average rainfall this winter.

“There’s a lot of fuel on the ground,” Nedlo told the network. “When you add high winds and low humidity to high fuel load levels, that’s when you get the conditions that are ripe for large, fast-burning wildfires.”

The National Weather Service has issued red flag warnings – signifying extreme fire risk due to warm temperatures, low humidity and strong winds – across much of the central US, including Texas and its neighboring states of New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Red flag warnings also covered nearly all of Nebraska and Iowa, along with large swaths of Kansas, Missouri and South Dakota. Smaller portions of Colorado, Wyoming, Minnesota and Illinois also were under red flag warnings.

The strong winds spread the flames, forcing authorities to issue an evacuation order in Sanford, a town of about 134 residents, according to a post by the Amarillo office of the National Weather Service.

Greg Abbott, the state’s governor, visited the region on Friday and has made disaster declarations for a large part of the state. He advised residents to “remain vigilant [and] heed the guidance of local officials to keep yourself [and] your loved ones safe”.

Authorities are still investigating what caused the fires but a resident has sued the electric utility Xcel Energy, alleging that one of the company’s power lines fell and ignited the Smokehouse Creek fire. Failing power equipment and downed lines have led to devastating fires across the American west in recent years from California to Maui.

Meanwhile, humanitarian organizations are trying to aid victims who have lost their homes and livelihoods, many of whom lack insurance. Residents began clearing affected property on Saturday and by Sunday the extent of the loss began mounting.

Donations ranging from $25 to $500 have been critical for the Hutchinson County United Way Wildfire Relief Fund, which is dispersing proceeds to displaced families.

“We already know that a large group of people are uninsured who lost their homes. So without monetary assistance, it’s going to be very hard for them to start back over,” said Julie Winters, executive director for Hutchinson County United Way.

The organization has heard estimates of more than 150 homes being affected in the county, noting the fires extend to at least five other counties, Winters said.

A steady outpouring of donated clothing, water and hot meals quickly overwhelmed one community in the affected area. The city of Borger, Texas, urged people in a social media post to redirect donation efforts from food and water to cleanup supplies including shovels, rakes, gloves and trash bags.

  • The Associated Press contributed to this story