Texas wildfires destroy homes, buildings

LUBBOCK, Tex Sun Apr 10, 2011 10:23pm EDT

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LUBBOCK, Tex (Reuters) - Wildfires scorched more than 230,000 acres in Texas on Sunday, roaring through a West Texas town, destroying an estimated 80 homes and buildings and critically injuring a firefighter.

The Texas Forest Service reported more than 60,000 acres burned and 40 homes lost in one blaze that raced through West Texas and into the small mountain town of Fort Davis. The fire rushed across 20 miles in 90 minutes.

Officials at the scene, however, estimated at least 100,000 acres in two counties had burned from the fire, which continued to grow Sunday evening.

"I can only describe it as an ocean of black, with a few islands of yellow," State Representative Pete Gallego said.

Flames "licked at the edges" of the town but did not burn their way through its center, sparing more buildings than expected, he said.

But 17 to 20 homes were destroyed, and as many as 30 more buildings were burned, he said after visiting the town, including a more than 100-year-old historic wooden ranch home. Residents had worked overnight to save their homes and moved on to help their neighbors, he said.

Hot spots still burned along the highway, and a glow from miles away was visible at night, he said.

"Even now, the flames in some places are 15 to 20 feet high," Gallego said.

The town was without power Sunday evening. Gallego said many of the residents may not have been insured for fire.

Presidio County Emergency Management Coordinator Gary Mitschke said it was the first fire to scare him in 13 years of fighting grass fires. The blaze crossed railroad tracks and state highways as it roared past Fort Davis, he said.

Without a change in winds, which were keeping aircraft from helping firefighting efforts, the fire could burn for days or weeks, he said.

"Frankly, it moved almost as quick as a truck," Mitschke said. "When you hear the word firestorm, this is what I imagine."

A federal emergency management spokesman said a fire grant for the county had been approved Saturday and that the agency stood by to support as needed.

Wildfires fed by dry, windy conditions have charred more than 270,000 acres in eight days across Texas, burning homes, killing livestock and drawing in crews and equipment from 25 states.

Plants that thrived in wet weather turned to tinder under a cold, dry winter. Weeks of high winds and little moisture have made every spark dangerous.

A Texas firefighter was in critical condition with severe burns Sunday afternoon after fighting an estimated 60,000-acre fire in the northern Panhandle.

The cause of the fire was under investigation, but it started in an isolated area near a natural gas plant and a few other industrial sites in an empty town called Masterson, said David Garrett, an emergency management spokesman for Moore County.

"Kind of like a wide spot in the road that has a name," Garrett said. "The fire started in open country and stayed in open country."

Two nearby communities were considered threatened but were not evacuated late Sunday afternoon, according to the forest service.

A Midland County wildfire burned 40 homes and at least 15,000 acres, according to the service.

Crews had stopped from crossing a highway a sprawling 71,000-acre fire that killed almost 170 head of cattle in Stonewall County, spokesman Lee McNeely said.

Air tankers had dropped 60,000 gallons of retardant to help slow the blaze.

Firefighters had most of the day to prepare for a cold front with gusting winds, McNeely said.

High winds and dry conditions were expected to persist into the evening across West Texas, the National Weather Service warned.

In Oklahoma, where Governor Mary Fallin has extended a 30-day state of emergency she declared on March 11, firefighters and helicopters on Sunday mopped up the smoldering remains of two fires that erupted Saturday.

One wildfire in Cleveland in north central Oklahoma charred more than 1,500 acres and forced 350 people to evacuate while another struck near Granite in southwest Oklahoma, said Michelann Ooten, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management.

(Additional reporting by Steve Olafson in Oklahoma City; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Jerry Norton)

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