LUBBOCK, Texas (Reuters) - Shifting winds gave some relief to Texans menaced by wildfires that have scorched more than 230,000 acres near rural towns but forecasts point to more fire potential in coming days, officials said Saturday.
“It’s not what we’d like to see,” said Texas Forest Service spokesman Marq Webb. “We would appreciate a tropical storm.”
Officials on Saturday morning had lifted evacuation orders for the northern suburbs of San Angelo, a city of 92,000.
Gusting winds that had spread wildfires within a few miles of the city’s outskirts reversed to push an 80,000 acre blaze away from the city.
Previous fires had prompted residents to flee smaller, rural communities, but San Angelo marked the largest and most populated area yet threatened by wildfires.
But even drier conditions and stronger winds over the next few days could spread fires in new directions and complicate battles to contain the sprawling blazes, officials warned.
A new front expected Sunday would shift the winds yet again and add more dry air, National Weather Service Meteorologist Mark Conder said.
“It’s not a dramatic shift in direction, but it is enough certainly for the firefighters to be concerned about fire moving and spreading in different directions,” Conder said.
Winds would grow in strength early next week, he said, and the pattern would move east across the state.
High winds and miles of dry, dead grassland have fed wildfires that scorched more than 722,000 acres over the last week, killing a volunteer firefighter and injuring at least three more. More than 1.1 million acres have burned since February under some of the driest conditions in state history.
San Angelo City Council Representative Dwain Morrison, who lived a mile south of the evacuation area, said he could see the sky again after spending Friday watching ash sprinkle his property and an ominous plume of smoke covering the horizon edge closer.
“When the wind is blowing right toward you like it was yesterday, blowing as hard as it was, and you know what’s behind that smoke, it gives you cause to say ‘Lord have mercy on us, please,'” Morrison said.
Winds died down on Friday evening, giving firefighters an edge, and later switched directions. There were no reports of injuries or destroyed homes Saturday morning as the danger lifted. But the changing winds later required a mandatory evacuation of rural homes roughly 15 miles north of the fire.
Bulldozers have plowed up earth to create fire breaks between the blaze and populated areas and the forest service has focused aircraft in the area.
Smoke spread for miles across West Texas under dusty, windy conditions. The National Weather Service warned of continuing fire danger through Monday, but officials reported much better conditions on Saturday than earlier in the week.
Firefighters had made progress containing a 149,000 acre fire that threatened the small town of Snyder and prompted the earlier evacuation of another town, state fire information officer Lee McNeely said.
Crews were working to contain the fire’s 90-mile perimeter.
Editing by David Bailey and Peter Bohan