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As Texas' largest-ever wildfire nears containment, Panhandle braces for "extremely critical fire weather conditions"

Thousands of Texas cattle lost to wildfires
Texas farmers on thousands of cows killed in Panhandle wildfires: "You can lose it overnight" 02:29

The Smokehouse Creek Fire – the largest wildfire to ever burn across Texas – is nearly completely contained after spreading almost 1.1 million acres. But as responders continue in the final stretch, officials warned Tuesday that they could face another hurdle – "extremely critical fire weather" in the Panhandle. 

As of Wednesday morning at 8 a.m. local time, the Texas A&M Forest Service said the Smokehouse Creek Fire is 89% contained and has burned an estimated 1,058,482 acres. The nearby Windy Deuce Fire, which has spread to more than 144,000 acres, is 94% contained. 

But there is still danger that the deadly and disastrous fires could further spread, and that even more could break out. 

"Today, the fire environment will support the potential for multiple, high impact, large wildfires that are highly (resistant) to control" in the Texas Panhandle, the service said. "A Southern Plains Wildfire outbreak is possible." 

The service said that fires could spread at rates of 3 to 5 miles per hour and that any that break out could "quickly outpace initial suppression efforts." 

The National Weather Service's Amarillo station said on Wednesday that grass conditions are "extremely dry" and that wind gusts are expected to reach about 45 miles per hour. The minimum relative humidity will also remain at about 10 to 15%, the service said, a combination of factors that makes wildfire outbreaks all the more likely. 

"Critical fire weather conditions for the eastern Oklahoma panhandle and all of the Texas Panhandle today," the service said. "In particular, the southern Texas Panhandle is expected to see the highest fire weather threat. Please refrain entirely from any outdoor activities which could produce sparks or flames."

However, the service added that the risk on Wednesday "is not expected to be on par" with the wildfires that broke out at the end of February. While humidity will be roughly the same as what was experienced during that time, forecasters said wind gusts – a main driving factor of the fast-spreading blazes – will be about 20 mph slower. 

"The historic results of that event served to bring forth the realization of just how abundant and dry the fuels are across the area, proving to be primed for burning. For this reason, there has been some stronger messaging out there this time around, even with slightly less favorable winds likely in place today," they said. "Regardless, we continue to strongly urge everyone to do their part and help prevent anymore wildfires across the Panhandles."

Most of the fires that ignited Feb. 26 and 27 have since been fully contained, aside from Windy Deuce and Smokehouse Creek, the latter of which was the size of Rhode Island, the largest in state history and among the largest-ever in the U.S. 

Wednesday's fire weather conditions are not expected to last. Forecasters and officials with the Forest Service say that a cold front is expected in the area tonight and on Thursday, decreasing fire risk. 

The fires that have ravaged the Texas Panhandles are proving to be costly, not just financially for the state, but for the livelihoods of many. CBS News spoke to one man who, along with his wife and three young daughters, saw their entire home reduced to ash in the town of Fritch and are now scrambling to pick up the pieces. The state's agricultural commissioner also told CBS News that thousands of heads of cattle have died in the fires, threatening to force many ranchers and farmers off their land completely. 

"Locally, it's quite devastating," Commissioner Sid Miller told CBS News, saying the total number of cows lost could end up totalling around 10,000. "...We'll actually end up having to put a lot of cattle down just because they won't be able to make it, even though they survived." 

Xcel Energy, a Minneapolis-based company that powers homes across the eight states in the West and Midwest, said last week that its facilities "appear to have been involved in an ignition of the Smokehouse Creek fire," although the company said it disputes claims they "acted negligently in maintaining and operating its infrastructure.

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