‘Ghastly sight’: Thousands of cattle killed in historic 2024 Texas Panhandle wildfires

Thousands of livestock have been killed in the wildfires that’ve ripped across the Texas Panhandle over the last week, inflicting unprecedented damage upon the largest cattle region in the nation.

Officials surveying the damage said more than 3,600 cattle have died since the fires – some of which are still ongoing – spread through multiple counties and into Oklahoma, destroying hundreds of homes and killing at least two people. The number of dead cattle is expected to double or triple in the coming days as inspectors continue inspecting the land and animals are euthanized because of burn injuries and trauma, Sid Miller, commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture, told USA TODAY.

“It’s a ghastly sight,” Miller said, recounting hundreds of cows lying dead on smoldering fields. “We’ve never seen anything like this.”

The largest of the blazes, the Smokehouse Creek fire, burned more than 1 million acres of land, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island, and is the largest wildfire in state history. While authorities have not said what caused the fires, citing early and ongoing investigations, a lawsuit filed in county court last week alleged that a downed utility pole in Stinnett was to blame.

Texas is home to 11 million livestock animals and 85% are in the panhandle, making it the country’s most prominent region for beef production, Miller said. The mass deaths likely won’t impact the price of beef around the nation, but it has already devastated local ranchers, many who’ve maintained businesses that have been in their family for generations, he said.

“They’ve lost their livestock, ranches, all their belongings, all their family heirlooms,” Miller said. “Many of them just have the shirt on their back.”

The Smokehouse Creek fire quadrupled in size in less than 48 hours, catching officials, civilians and farmers off guard and unable to prevent widespread damage. Miller said several large ranchers cut down their own fences so their livestock could escape into surrounding wheat fields; other farmers barely had enough time to get themselves out alive.

Dozens of nearby residents joined the massive recovery effort, donating money, food and equipment to their neighbors. Trailers packed with hay, feed and other supplies have answered the urgent need for vital sustenance as the wildfires consumed the cattle’s primary food source.

“This is ranchers helping ranchers,” said Jason Smith, a beef cattle specialist and associated professor for Texas A&M University. He noted that some farms were untouched or suffered little damage, while others were completely destroyed.

Ranchers move cattle killed by the Smokehouse Creek Fire out of burned ranch land on March 1, 2024, in Skellytown, Texas. The wildfire, which started Feb. 26, has left behind a charred landscape of scorched prairie, dead cattle and burned-out homes in the Texas Panhandle.

Several nearby ranches have loaned out tractors and other heavy equipment needed to pile up and transport the corpses of cattle before they’re buried or incinerated. Chance Bowers, who operates a ranch in Hansford County, about 80 miles northeast of Amarillo, said such equipment was used to move hundreds of cattle who died either from burns or smoke inhalation.

“We were right in the middle of calving season,” Bowers said. “In a few weeks, we’ll really know what we lost. … This pasture alone, there’s 70 dead.”

Though the fires are still ongoing, local officials said they’ve seen enough damage to know recovery won’t come quickly.

“A lot of these people are going to have to sell,” Miller said. “They have no grass, no infrastructure, no fences, no cattle. They’ll sell and wait for better days. … It’ll take a couple of years to get things back in shape.”