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

<span>A wildfire can be seen, slightly through heat waves, after it was whipped up by high winds in Pampa, Texas, on Saturday.</span><span>Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters</span>
A wildfire can be seen, slightly through heat waves, after it was whipped up by high winds in Pampa, Texas, on Saturday.Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

Ferocious winds continue to thwart firefighters across a broad swathe of Texas on Sunday where the second largest wildfire in US history is only 15% contained after six days.

As of Sunday morning the Smokehouse Creek Fire has so far scorched almost 1.1m acres – 1,700 sq miles – across the Texas Panhandle in the north of the state, as well as tens of thousands of acres in Oklahoma.

It stretches over an area larger than Rhode Island, making it the largest and most destructive wildfire in Texas history. The fire has the potential to move at 1-3 mph and burn as quickly as 900-1500 acres in an hour, due to a combination of highs winds, dry conditions and unseasonably high temperatures.

Several other smaller fires also continue to burn across the Texas panhandle, including the Windy Deuce fire which has razed 144,000 acres, and the Grape Vine Creek fire stretching 35,000 acres, which are both 60% contained.

Critical fire weather conditions are expected to continue through Sunday as south-westerly winds gust to 50mph and humidity drops below 15%, according to the National Weather Service (NWS) in Amarillo.

The highest risk is for the High Plains and northern Rolling Plains region of the Panhandle, an area with cattle ranches, crops like wheat and cotton, and native dry grasses, where high winds and temperatures well above normal are forecast for Sunday. The NWS urged residents to “practice fire safety and prevention today so no new fires start and stress our already hard working firefighters”.

Dust is likely to reduce visibility, further hampering firefighting efforts.

Firefighters on the ground are being aided by 12 aircraft, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service on Saturday evening. This included multi-engine air tankers – also known as super scoopers – used to scoop water out of Lake Meredith to tackle the Windy Deuce fire. The Forest Service spent much of Saturday trying to hold the fire line as a wind shift threatened to change the direction of the blaze.

In Oklahoma, the forestry service is using planes to dump buckets of water on the flames of multiple fires threatening state and tribal lands.

The scale of the destruction is unprecedented, with tens of thousands of acres of farmland, and hundreds of structures including many homes and businesses. Two people died in Texas: 44-year-old Cindy Owen and 83-year-old Joyce Blankenship. Thousands of horses, goats, cattle including newborn calves were killed or euthanized after suffering horrific burns and smoke inhalation.

“Just my prediction, but it will be 10,000 that will have died or we’ll have to euthanize… A lot of those cattle are still alive but the hooves are burned off, the teats are burned off, their udders are burned off. It’s just a sad situation.” Texas agriculture commissioner Sid Miller told BBC.

Disaster relief group Rancher Navy made a plea for donations of heavy equipment to help bury the deceased livestock. Hay, feed, milk replacement and the drug the albuterol to treat livestock for smoke inhalation were among the other supplies needed.

It’s unclear what started the fires, which have been burning since Monday, but dry grassy vegetation, strong winds and atypically warm temperatures have helped them rapidly spread and combine to make larger fires, making it extremely difficult for firefighters to contain the blazes.

Further north, the NWS warned that way above average spring-like temperatures were contributing to a critical fire weather threat in the central and southern High Plains region