Thousands Told to Leave as Texas Fire Grows

GRIMES COUNTY, Texas --

A fire that has burned about 5,000 acres and destroyed dozens of buildings in Grimes County was 35 percent contained on Tuesday morning.

About 30 homes have been destroyed in the fire that started Sunday. Grimes County Sheriff Don Sowell said it appeared the blaze was sparked by a barbecue pit that spilled out of control off Clark Road in neighboring Waller County about 3:30 p.m.

About 1,800 houses and businesses were evacuated Monday afternoon, including homes in the Pine Brook and Shadow Lake subdivisions.

Earlier, evacuated families were moved to the grounds of the Texas Renaissance Festival off F.M. 1774, just northwest of Magnolia. However, by Monday at 4 p.m., the Renaissance Festival grounds were in the path of danger, so a new shelter was set up at Navasota High School, located at 9238 Highway 90 South, officials said. Those coming to the shelter were asked to bring bedding, pillows, prescription medicines, eye glasses, diapers and formulas if needed; and toys, books and games for those with young children.

Residents who evacuated were encouraged to register at the shelter even if they chose not to stay there. Deputies said they want to get everyone's contact information so they can notify people if their home is destroyed.

Many of the evacuees have pets and livestock that cannot be taken to the shelter at the high school, but there are places the animals can be taken to be kept safe. The Houston SPCA is accepting small animals at the Navasota Auction Barn. Large animals can be taken to the Mid Tex Auction Barn in Navasota.

A baby doe was found in the fire zone overnight. A law enforcement officer took it to the command post and gave it food and water.

Fierce winds have been causing trouble for the hundreds of firefighters battling the flames.

"The winds make fire control and containment very difficult," said Lexi Williams of the Texas Forest Service. "Not only are they strong and push and channel the direction of the fire, but as the winds shift side to side, the direction of the fire is going to shift."

Firefighters spent Tuesday trying to stop the fire from spreading.

"They're widening their fire breaks that they've installed," said Justice Jones of the Texas Forest Service. "They're beefing up their structure protection efforts… and ordered heavy air tankers to hold it at major roads."

One man who lives in the Pine Brook subdivision said he regretted leaving his home unattended.

"The fire was over three miles away from the house when they told us we had to leave," Ben Pledger said. "There's certain criteria like us; we don't have a six-inch bed of pine needles all around our house."

Sean Blackwell was among those who had to evacuate with only a moment's notice.

"Every time I looked out there, it was already atop the trees and you could see the top of the trees going off like firecrackers -- boom, boom, boom, and they were just catching fire, and it was running this way. It would jump from one tree to the next and take the tops out," he said.

Blackwell said he thinks his home has been destroyed.

"You ever been kicked in the gut? Same feeling. I've been married for 25 years so (I've) got 25 years of marriage and memories stuck into a house," Blackwell said.

Blackwell said he was only able to grab a hard drive that contained some family pictures. His family and pets escaped with their lives.

"(We'll) wait and see what happens -- hope for the best, but prepare for the worst," he said.

KPRC Local 2 News cameras went along with sheriff's patrols Sunday as they searched deep inside the burning area to make sure people had evacuated.

"We tried to get everybody out that we could get out," said Sowell.

Rows of trees were on fire, showering flaming embers into the wind and onto nearby fields and pastures. Bright orange flames leaped 20 to 30 feet into the air as gusting winds pushed the fire into new territory. Some trees burned and crashed down across roads as frantic neighbors tried to load panicked horses and other livestock into trailers.

At one point Sunday evening, frightened horses were seen running loose in the roadway as flames burned on each side of the pavement.

"It's rekindling everywhere," said Sowell.

County officials said the fire consumed an area around some Union Pacific Railroad tracks, but trains had already stopped running along that line because of the fire. Deputies sent a message to the railroad that survey crews should be sent before trains resume there because the intense heat may have damaged the tracks as the fires raced up and across the rail line and onward toward more homes.

Two injuries have been reported. Investigators said a man was pinned between two firetrucks in a place he should not have been. He was hospitalized, but his condition was not released. The second victim was hit by a falling tree. That person's condition was also not released.

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