LUBBOCK, Texas (Reuters) - Calmer winds on Monday allowed an airborne assault on West Texas wildfires that destroyed dozens of homes and a dog kennel and forced hundreds of residents to evacuate.
The 50-mile-per-hour winds whipping up the blazes that scorched 120,000 acres of bone-dry grasslands subsided and helicopters and tanker planes supported firefighters on the ground employing trucks and bulldozers. But it may take days to gain control of the several separate fires, authorities said.
“It just takes so long get around those larger fires,” the Texas Forest Service’s Tom Spencer said.
Fires destroyed 80 homes, many around Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle, the Forest Service said. Evacuations emptied a nursing home in Colorado City and a hospital in San Angelo, and the town of Matador.
“It’s just overwhelming, I just panicked,” said a woman in the town of 700 who lost her home to the flames.
A 40,000-acre fire licking at the town 80 miles northeast of Lubbock was about 75 percent under control, and Matador reopened to residents on Monday, said John Gonzalez of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
One sheriff’s deputy was injured in the Amarillo area, and an unknown number of dogs perished in a kennel fire as firefighters attempted a rescue.
“They stayed as long as they could, and then they just had to open up the kennels,” Amarillo Fire Captain Wes Hall said.
Authorities have not determined the cause of the blazes, but the National Weather Service warned tinder-dry conditions would continue through Thursday. Dry conditions in central and southern Texas raised the fire risks there.
A 5-year-old girl died on Sunday in a highway traffic accident near Midland blamed on blinding smoke. Authorities closed a 60-mile stretch of smoke-choked Interstate highway 20 between Odessa and Big Spring, after several pile-ups.
Major fires were reported in five West Texas counties, and a mandatory evacuation order was in place in the panhandle.
Rescue workers drove down dusty back roads to ensure residents were out of the way of the fast-moving flames, said Jim Meador, an official in Motley County.
“The immediate concern right now is the homes that are out in the county, in rural areas, to make sure them folks are all right,” Meador said.
Reporting by Elliott Blackburn in Lubbock and Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Andrew Stern and Jerry Norton