Dry thunderstorms spark more fires in West Texas

LUBBOCK Mon May 9, 2011 7:59pm EDT

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LUBBOCK (Reuters) - Texans returned to their homes on Monday after another weekend of menacing wildfires in the state's bone-dry west.

Homes scattered across rural portions of the state were threatened by fires burning more than 80,000 acres and the high temperatures and winds feeding them.

But experts and residents on scene said much of the immediate danger had passed by Monday afternoon.

"Still remains hot, dry and windy here, so conditions are not all that favorable," said Bruce Palmer, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman on the scene of a 70,000-acre blaze in Dickens County. "But they're making good progress."

The Texas Forest Service has reported wildfires have scorched more than 2.2 million acres and more than 400 homes this year during some of the driest conditions in state history.

Low humidity was so pervasive that rain dropped by passing weekend thunderstorms evaporated before hitting the ground, National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Jurecka said.

The storms instead brought gustier winds, fanning flames sparked by lightning.

Such storms were believed to have sparked the Dickens County fire 350 miles northwest of Austin, where firefighters worked in more than 100 degree weather. A short distance south, an 8,500 acre blaze was threatening more than 30 homes, state forest spokesman Alex Carframe said.

Investigators were still researching the cause of a more than 4,500 acre fire that forced the evacuation of a group of homes outside the small town of Alpine on Sunday.

Residents returned to their homes Monday morning, according to the forest service. The worst of it was over by sundown, Mayor Jerry Johnson said, though he could still see smoke rising from hotspots in a nearby canyon and had watched the red glow of smoldering spots on the mesa the night before.

Homeowners joined volunteer and state firefighters to stop the blaze, he said.

Planes carrying a special flame-retarding gel smothered a blaze that drew within 100 yards of a Border Patrol station, he said.

But the town had not seen any rain since late September, he said. Fire danger would remain high as long as the surrounding grass and shrubs were dry, he said.

"These fires are not over, for sure," Johnson said.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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