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Firefighters struggle to control record-breaking wildfire in Texas Panhandle


Firefighters are trying to contain a wildfire in the Texas Panhandle. It has now burned about 1,700 square miles, making it the largest wildfire in Texas history. Rachel Osier Lindley of The Texas Newsroom has glimpses of life near the burn zone.

RACHEL OSIER LINDLEY, BYLINE: Jessamyn English is manning the cash register at Alexander's, a favorite convenience store and deli in the tiny town of Canadian, Texas.


LINDLEY: And all week, she's been ringing up a lot of hungry and tired firefighters, whose food and drink are free because of community donations.


JESSAMYN ENGLISH: Sometimes we have to argue a little bit (laughter), but, no, food is covered. We are just thankful that you are here to help.

LINDLEY: Canadian, population under 3,000, is one of several small communities dotting the plains north of Amarillo ordered to evacuate Tuesday as a fast-moving fire swept through the region. Homes were destroyed, grasslands and ranches scorched.

HEATHER HELMS: It was heartbreaking. It was very heartbreaking to see.

LINDLEY: Heather Helms is picking up some food.

HELMS: I mean, you just don't even realize that in a split of a second it can all be gone.

LINDLEY: Helms drove from Oklahoma to be with her parents. Her father helped residents get out as the fire approached.

HELMS: Right now, I'm just waiting for my dad to get out of the hospital because he inhaled too much smoke. So they're keeping him for another day.

LINDLEY: With the region's high winds and years of drought, people living here have seen fires before, but nothing like this.

JUAN RODRIGUEZ: It's definitely a historical fire.

LINDLEY: Juan Rodriguez is with the Texas A&M Forest Service, the state's lead firefighting agency. He says conditions, including strong winds and unseasonably warm weather, contributed to the fire's rapid spread.

RODRIGUEZ: We were experiencing winds sustained at 30 to 40 miles an hour, wind gusts up to 60 to 70 miles an hour. The fire was moving extremely fast, consuming everything in its path.

LINDLEY: Two women are the only confirmed deaths so far, and officials say tens of thousands of cattle were likely killed. A few miles west of Canadian's main strip, dozens of cows wander the roads. All around, the grass is charred and black.


TATUM PENNINGTON: That's the generator.

LINDLEY: Here, Tatum Pennington and her husband run a ranch with some 300 head of cattle.

PENNINGTON: And right now, we would be at the height of calving season. So we've had a lot of babies and mamas that have passed away.

LINDLEY: When the fire got close, Pennington evacuated with her children and dogs. They're back now, but didn't have power until volunteers brought over a generator yesterday. You can hear it rumbling in the wind outside her house as she points out the devastation on her property.

PENNINGTON: We found several cattle that were burned severely, but they weren't dead yet. It was just gruesome. That's probably been the toughest, darkest moments we've had. We had to shoot a bunch of cattle yesterday.

LINDLEY: She says it'll take years to build back the operation. And Texas officials are warning that higher winds and warmer weather this weekend could expand the fire if firefighters can't get a handle on the blaze soon.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Osier Lindley in Canadian, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rachel Osier Lindley