02:15 - Source: CNN
'More than 50 dead so far': Ranch manager shows devastation of Texas wildfire
CNN  — 

Firefighters racing to wrangle the largest blaze in Texas history could get their best chance in days to contain the flames in the wake of a cold front Monday. Hot air and raging winds have fueled the infernos in recent days, reducing entire neighborhoods to rubble and inflicting harrowing injuries upon ranchers’ livestock.

The front arrived Monday morning, bringing an influx of cooler conditions. Breezy winds will taper off early in the afternoon and calmer air will last through Tuesday, giving firefighters a reprieve from the critical fire risk conditions that have aided the wildfires’ explosive spread over the Texas Panhandle.

Since igniting last Monday, the ravenous Smokehouse Creek Fire has incinerated more than 1 million acres of the Texas Panhandle and is still only 15% contained. The fire has killed at least two people and crossed into Oklahoma, where more than 31,000 acres have been burned.

Five fires tearing across the Panhandle have burned as many as 500 homes and businesses, state officials said. A new blaze – the Roughneck Fire – ignited in Hutchinson County on Sunday and prompted evacuations there as crews raced to get resources to the area.

First responders hoped that after the weekend’s severe fire risk, improved conditions in the coming days would allow them to inch closer to containing the infernos, Texas A&M Forest Service spokesperson Jason Nedlo told CNN on Saturday.

But the blazes have so far been thriving on a bounty of fuel, including blankets of grass grown after higher-than-average rainfall this winter.

“There’s a lot of fuel on the ground,” Nedlo said. “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.”

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Tia Champion and her husband Tim help a friend search the remains of her home near Stinnett, Texas, after it was destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire.

Latest developments

New fire prompts evacuations: The Roughneck Fire began burning Sunday and has grown to cover about 300 acres of Hutchinson County, which is also the origin site of the Smokehouse Creek Fire. The blaze prompted an evacuation order in the town of Sanford, which began to be lifted later that evening, county officials said. The Texas A&M Forest Service said that the fire’s forward progression had been halted and it was 50% contained as of Monday afternoon.

Several other fires still burning: The Windy Deuce Fire in Moore County has burned through 144,000 acres and is 55% contained as of Sunday night, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. The Grape Vine Creek Fire in Gray County has torched nearly 35,000 acres and is 60% contained. The Magenta Fire in Oldham County has destroyed 3,297 acres and is 85% contained.

Significant progress in containing Oklahoma fire: “The Smokehouse Creek Fire perimeter looks good and will be turned back over to local departments tomorrow,” Oklahoma Forestry Services spokesperson Keith Merckx said Sunday. “The fire will be 75% contained by the end of shift today.” The fire has scorched more than 31,500 acres of Oklahoma near its border with Texas.

• Lawsuit alleges fallen power pole caused fire: A woman whose home was destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire is suing Xcel Energy, its subsidiary and a contractor, claiming that an improperly maintained power pole fell and started the fire. The Texas A&M Forest Service is investigating the fire, and has not announced a cause.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Only the chimney remains upright after a home was destroyed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Stinnett, Texas.

At least two people are dead: Truck driver Cindy Owen was working about 50 miles north of Pampa, Texas, on Tuesday when the Smokehouse Creek Fire overcame her, her sister-in-law told CNN. She left her truck and tried running for safety but received fatal burns over almost her entire body, said Jennifer Mitchell, the wife of Owen’s brother. In nearby Hutchinson County, 83-year-old Joyce Blankenship was found dead, her family said. “The house was gone,” her grandson Nathan Blankenship said. “There was no way she could’ve gotten out.”

Devastating loss of beef cattle crushes local ranchers: As the fires rip through scores of ranches and acres of farmland, officials report thousands of cattle have been killed and ranchers have been forced to put down many others that have sustained gruesome and painful burns to their hooves, udders and fur. Ranchers and local authorities told CNN that beef prices likely won’t be affected, but the fire may leave lasting economic scars for ranchers.

How you can help: GoFundMe has launched a platform for verified fundraisers benefiting Texans affected by wildfires, including dozens of families who have lost entire homes, belongings or livestock. The Texas Farm Bureau has established a fund to aid farmers and ranchers. CNN’s Impact Your World has also identified several charities assisting wildfire victims.

‘Nothing left but ashes on the ground’

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the state has witnessed damage wrought by tornadoes or hurricanes, but the wildfires have brought unprecedented destruction and “utter devastation” for many Panhandle residents.

“Frequently when you see the aftermath of (hurricane or tornado) damage, there is some semblance of a structure that is still there,” Abbott said Friday. “When you look at the damages that are here, it’s just gone. Completely gone. Nothing left but ashes on the ground.”

Though officials estimate between 400 to 500 structures have been destroyed, the number could increase as damage assessments continue, Abbot said. 

Tyler McCain and his family are among those who frantically evacuated their homes on Tuesday – only to return to find their life’s possessions had been incinerated. He and his wife were able to pack up their three daughters and leave their home in Fritch, Texas in time, but McCain was tortured with doubt over whether their home would be spared.

“Until I saw my house, it wasn’t real,” McCain said. The home – razed to the ground – was unrecognizable.

Susan and Ronnie Johnson also fought desperately to save their five-bedroom ranch near Fritch, only to watch two decades of their lives go up in flames.

“You don’t ever want to believe it’ll be your house that burns,” Ronnie told CNN.

Now all that’s left is a pile of charred debris – a dining table, pieces of white fine china, blue and red Dutch ovens, chairs and a smoker were scattered across a devastated scene of dust, rubble and fallen trees.

The loss has been “numbing,” Susan said, but she still holds on to the beloved memories she and her family of nine made in the home.

“We’ll rebuild and start again,” Ronnie said.

CNN’s Dalia Faheid, Camila Bernal, Robert Shackelford, Joe Sutton, Melissa Alonso, Chris Boyette, Andy Rose and Mary Gilbert contributed to this report.