Calmer winds give hope in Texas wildfires; another death

SAN ANTONIO Wed Apr 20, 2011 4:38pm EDT

1 of 3. Flames crest over a hill as part of the out of control wild fires in Palo Pinto County, Texas April 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Tim Sharp

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SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Calmer winds and higher humidity on Wednesday gave the army of firefighters battling several major blazes in north and west Texas hope of halting the worst wildfires in the state's history.

Texas is burning from "stem to stern," said spokesman Marq Webb, and the change in weather is welcome in the fight against fires that have scorched more than 1.5 million acres.

A second volunteer firefighter died from injuries sustained while battling the Texas wild fires, a Lubbock hospital official said on Wednesday.

Elias Jaquez, 49, who suffered burns, died overnight at University Medical Center in Lubbock, said hospital spokesman Eric Finley. Jaquez, who had been hospitalized since April 10, was injured fighting a blaze in the Panhandle. On Friday, firefighter Gregory Simmons, 50, was killed west of Fort Worth. Officials earlier had listed his age as 51.

Officials said they made progress fighting the four most serious brush fires, including one that has burned 147,000 acres and destroyed more than 100 homes around Possum Kingdom Lake west of Ft. Worth. Six hundred homes are listed by the Forest Service as still threatened. The lake is lined with high-dollar houses, many of which are second homes of residents of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

"The winds today are calm and the humidity today is very high, so hopefully they can get the fires contained today with the weather conditions as they are," said Dee Jackson, dispatcher at the sheriff's department in Palo Pinto County, where the lake is located.

The fact that the Possum Kingdom fire is located in a heavily populated area makes fighting it difficult, Webb said.

Many of the small towns around the fire, which had issued or threatened evacuation orders in recent days, have now lifted those orders.

In the small town of Strawn, in Palo Pinto County, town secretary Ruth Ann Craddock said residents are grateful.

"We were saved once again," she said. "For now, anyway."

There is the same relief in neighboring Stephens County, where County Judge Gary Fuller expressed cautious optimism.

"Right now since the wind isn't blowing, I don't know if any of them are a hundred percent contained or not, but you can say that we are relieved," he said.

The Forest Service is also reporting significant progress since Tuesday on the other three major fire systems around the state. The Wildcat Fire north of San Angelo, which has burned 150,000 acres, is listed as 30 percent contained.

The Cooper Mountain Ranch fire east of Lubbock, which has burned 162,000 acres, is 85 percent contained, and the Rockhouse fire, which has burned nearly 200,000 acres in extreme west Texas southeast of El Paso is listed as 75 percent contained.

Since February 1, 370 homes have been lost in the fires that have ravaged Texas, according to the Forest Service.

Webb said that the 1,800 firefighters from more than 30 states fighting the fires have now been joined by officials from the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

"All of the heavy air tankers from across the nation are in Texas now," he said.

Several new fires were reported on Wednesday, including an 800-acre fire south of the Possum Kingdom fire, and a 2,000-acre fire to the west of that in Garza County.

A major, 7,000 acre fire is burning in Tyler County, north of Beaumont, in normally damp southeast Texas, an indication of the statewide reach of the current drought, Webb said. The state climatologist has reported that March was the driest ever in Texas for that month.

"Normally by this time of the year east Texas has greened up and will not burn -- you can't make it burn," Webb said. "But we're having trouble with actual crown fires in our Piney Woods that are very unusual."

A crown fire is a phenomenon in which flames, usually sparked by lightning, leap from top to top of the towering pine trees in the part of the state known as the Big Thicket for its dense pine forests.

Fuller, the Stephens County judge, said there is one thing that could happen that would make him even more optimistic.

"If God would just send some rain," Fuller said.

(Additional reporting by Elliott Blackburn. Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)

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