Four Killed in Wind-Driven Texas Grass Fires
Updated: 12-28-2005 01:29:33 PM
By SHEILA FLYNN
Associated Press Writer
Firefighters searched for missing people and hoped for cooler, calmer weather Wednesday after deadly wildfires raced across thousands of acres of grassland dried out by Texas' worst drought in decades and destroyed dozens of homes.
The wind-driven fires were blamed for four deaths, the Texas Division of Emergency Management said Wednesday.
In addition to the deaths, at least three people were unaccounted-for Wednesday in Cross Plains, a town of about 1,000 people, fire officials said. Firefighters were searching burned-out houses.
More than 100 buildings, including 78 homes, were destroyed by Tuesday's fires, which burned across 13,000 acres, the state emergency management agency said. That included about 25 homes in Cross Plains, local fire officials said. Blazes also destroyed at least two dozen homes in Oklahoma.
Fires were still smoldering Wednesday in four Texas counties, the agency said. One new fire was reported Wednesday in an isolated area of eastern Oklahoma; it was later contained.
Patricia Cook said her home in Cross Plains was saved by her 18-year-old son, J.D., and a friend, who saw the flames approaching the house and ran to save it.
"The fire was literally nipping at their heels," she said. "He just picked up the hose and started watering things down."
The Cook home is on the same block as the First United Methodist Church, which was destroyed.
"We had a tornado here years ago and we thought that was devastating. This lasted for hours and hours," she said.
Severe drought, wind gusting to 40 mph and temperatures reaching the low 80s set the stage for the fires, which authorities believe were mostly set by people ignoring fire bans and burning trash, shooting fireworks or tossing cigarettes on the crunchy, dry grass. A fallen power line apparently started one Oklahoma blaze.
"If we have a situation where we are able to prove that someone intentionally started this, we will probably prosecute them to the full extent of the law," said Kennedale Mayor Jim Norwood.
Temperatures peaking in the 60s and 70s were likely Wednesday. "The little cooler conditions will help, if the winds stay down," Norwood said.
However, the area is unusually dry.
"This is the driest that we know on record since 1959," Keith Ebel, a deputy Texas fire marshal, said on CBS' "The Early Show." "It's extremely dry. We have lakes that have completely dried up that are normally 20, 30 feet deep."
North Texas, where many of the fires broke out, is experiencing its driest year since 1956, the National Weather Service said. As of Wednesday, 18.97 inches of rain had fallen at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and no more rain is forecast before Jan. 1, meteorologist Alan Moller said.
That's in sharp contrast with 2004, one of Texas' wettest years on record, when Dallas-Fort Worth got 45.5 inches. The average for the region is 34.73 inches, Moller said.
Oklahoma has received about 24 inches of rain this year, about 12 inches less than normal.
Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Traci Weaver called the wildfires the state's worst since February 1996, when blazes that covered 16,000 acres destroyed 141 structures around Poolville, about 40 miles northwest of Fort Worth.
Firefighters in Cross Plains couldn't fight all the blazes at once.
"Instantly, there were 15 or 20 houses on fire at same time and no way to get around to all of them," said rancher Dean Dillard.
One of the deaths was a woman found dead in her home in Cross Plains, but no other details were available, Assistant Fire Chief Rick Caruth said. A second was a woman who apparently fell and broke her hip and couldn't get out of her home in Callisburg, near the Texas-Oklahoma line, before it was destroyed by the flames, firefighters said.
Details on the other two deaths weren't immediately available.
At least 15 Texas firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation or heat exhaustion, plus two more in Oklahoma, authorities said.
In Oklahoma City, a child suffered minor burns on his hands when a shed caught fire. That blaze was apparently started by children playing with fireworks, Fire Department Maj. Brian Stanaland said.
Associated Press writers Matt Curry in Kennedale, Texas, Tim Talley in Mustang, Okla., Liz Austin in Austin and Paul J. Weber and Anabelle Garay in Dallas contributed to this report.
Rash Of Grass Fires Continues; Danger Still Growing
Rash Of Central Texas Grass Fires Continues
Texas Fighting Several Fires
The number of grass fires in Central Texas has more than quadrupled compared to this same time last year.
To put this in perspective, the Austin Fire Department has already responded to 54 grass or brush fires. For this same week last year, they responded to just 11.
The latest brush fire sparked Monday night in Bastrop and is prompting local firefighters to spread an urgent warning to Central Texans.
Tuesday's blaze near FM 812 and Watts Lane scorched 10-20 acres before fire crews were able to contain the flames. Firefighters tell KXAN a controlled burn is to blame.
As we've been telling you for about a week here at KXAN, dry and windy conditions are just increasing the fire danger.
"Obviously the dry conditions make the fire move extremely fast, which can mean loss of property and even homes," said Assistant Chief Brian Lyons with Bastrop County Fire & Rescue. "You know, brush is brush, but we don't want to lose anybody's house or have anybody injured. With the wind conditions and the dry conditions, it's very hard for us to get fires under control quickly out here."
Another grass fire Monday burned through 40 acres of land threatening homes near the Bastrop-Travis county line.
"Supposedly a can of hairspray exploded and blew sparks out and caught a 40-acre field on fire," said Gary Crowe with Bastrop County Fire & Rescue.
High winds swept another fire through the area along Jacobson Road in southeast Travis County. Volunteers from over half a dozen agencies responded to slow the spreading blaze. As flames crept closer to homes, residents joined the fight. Some neighbors even hauled buckets of water. Others grabbed hoses as firefighters worked other areas.
"All the neighbors in the surrounding area, even from this side of the road here, came to help out," said nearby resident Carlos Chavez.
A burn ban is in effect for much of Central Texas. That fact makes these recent blazes all the more troubling for area firefighters. Fire officials warn that controlled burns are illegal right now in most local counties, and residents face fines if caught.