Wildfires fed by "perfect" conditions in Southwest

LUBBOCK, Texas Mon Apr 4, 2011 6:41pm EDT

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LUBBOCK, Texas (Reuters) - Wildfires fed off what were described as "perfect" conditions for burning again on Monday across drought-stricken Texas and nearby states.

High temperatures, dry grass, gusting winds and dry air contributed to fires that began over the weekend in Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and New Mexico, said Patrick Slattery, a spokesman for the National Weather Service.

More than three quarters of Texas was under severe or extreme levels of drought, according to the Texas Forest Service. Hot, dry conditions and high winds meant any spark could ignite grassland.

"It's the perfect weather for fire," Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Jeanne Eastham said.

Wild fires are common this time of year across the Southern Plains. But drought conditions are especially bad in the Lone Star State, said Victor Murphy, climate service program manager for the National Weather Service southern region headquarters in Fort Worth.

"Texas is far and away the worst," Murphy said.

Texas has seen the fifth-driest period on record between October and February, and March numbers are expected to show the same, said state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

"It doesn't look like it's going to end, either, looking at the weather patterns," Nielsen-Gammon said.

Last year's wet weather, which encouraged plenty of fuel to grow, and dry and cold conditions this year, had helped turn the grassland into tinder.

Texas Army National Guard aircraft were called in on Monday to help fight a 4,000-acre wildfire outside of Brownwood that threatened a Guard training facility.

In Oklahoma, the wild fires caused the worst damage in the panhandle and northwest portion of the state, said Michaelann Ooten, spokeswoman for the state's emergency management department. Some homes were destroyed, but assessments are not complete, she said.

"We're anticipating very dangerous fire weather again today -- in fact, through the rest of the week," she said on Monday.

No serious injuries have been reported, Ooten said, even though several auto accidents occurred outside the panhandle town of Guymon when motorists found themselves surrounded by smoke and collided into vehicles that had stopped on the roadway.

The fire in Guymon destroyed three homes and one business and cut electricity to about 1,500 homes after it burned down a line of power poles, said Fire Chief Clark Purdy.

The drought in Oklahoma is one of the worst in the state's history, Ooten said.

The southwestern Kansas town of Satanta was back to normal on Monday after being evacuated on Sunday due to runaway grass fires fanned by winds of 35 to 50 miles per hour.

The fire burned about 9,600 acres of grassland, destroyed a home, two unoccupied trailers and about 12 outbuildings, according to a news release from Haskell County officials. One railroad bridge was also destroyed, the release said.

In New Mexico, wildfires continued to burn out of control on Monday, threatening several neighborhoods and the Ruidoso Downs Racetrack, a state fire official said.

The "White Fire" which started on Sunday, has burned five homes, several structures and nearly 6,500 acres in the south central part of the state, said Dan Ware, the fire information officer for the New Mexico State Forestry Division.

Extremely high winds on Sunday fed fires throughout the state.

"It's bad. I don't know when the last time we had 27 fires burning at once in New Mexico," Ware said.

In Colorado, a weekend snowstorm eased wildfire concerns across the eastern part of the state and slowed the growth of a 4,500-acre wildfire west of Fort Collins that destroyed 15 homes, fire officials said on Monday.

"The snow has moderated the fire behavior," said Reghan Cloudman, fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service. "It didn't put it out, but it certainly helped."

Evacuation orders were lifted for residents of another 336 homes that were forced to flee the burn area on Sunday.

The snowstorm limited air tankers to a handful of fire retardant drops on Sunday, but clear weather will allow aerial resources to attack the blaze throughout the day on Monday.

While higher humidity and cooler temperatures provided a respite from the fire danger, the National Weather Service said warmer and drier weather forecast for later in the week could put eastern Colorado back in a "red flag warning" status for high risk of wildfire.

(Additional reporting by Corrie MacLaggan in Austin, Keith Coffman in Denver, Kevin Murphy in Kansas City, Steve Olafson in Oklahoma City and Zelie Pollon in Santa Fe; Editing by Greg McCune)

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