Crews Battle Wildfires Amid Severe Texas Drought

By: AP Email
By: AP Email

LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) - Firefighters on Monday battled to contain
several large blazes that have burned hundreds of square miles of
rural Texas and destroyed more than 60 homes since last week,
getting reinforcements from out of state as they struggled against
some of the worst wildfire conditions in state history.

The powerful winds that sent walls of flame through parched ranchland in and around the West Texas communities of Fort Davis
and Midland, destroying more than 60 homes on Saturday and Sunday and killing livestock and horses, took pity by directing the fires
to the largely unpopulated open spaces north and east of the
cities.

And an overnight thunderstorm - a rare occurrence of late, with the state coming off its driest March since 1895 - gave crews the break they needed to begin containing a wildfire that had scorched about 110 square miles of rolling prairies about 175 miles west of Fort Worth.

All of Texas is experiencing drought, and conditions are classified as extreme or exceptional in 65 percent of the state, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor map.

Rain from last summer's Hurricane Alex led to particularly lush vegetation growth, said Mark Stanford, the operations director for the Texas Forest Service. A cold winter and the drought killed off much of that growth, and with fewer cattle grazing on Texas pasturelands, the dried remains have provided a perfect fuel for wildfires to consume, he said.

Thus far this year, the Forest Service and fire departments have responded to 654 fires this year that have burned 916 square miles
of land and destroyed 189 homes. That's a far cry from five years ago, when wildfires burned more than 3,000 square miles, destroyed 413 homes and killed 12 people in the month of March - the deadliest wildfire month in state history.

But Stanford said the wildfire conditions were even worse than those of March 2006, the deadliest wildfire month in state history, when blazes killed 12 people, including six in one day.

"We're in new territory because it's drier than it has been for `06, `08 and `09, but there is more fuel to burn." Stanford said.

The parched conditions are expected to last for several days, at least, but the 30-40 mph winds that have been fueling the western blazes are expected to drop into the teens and low 20s, he said.

"And that makes a huge difference," Stanford said.

It'll be too late for those who watched the terrifying, fast-moving fires sweep through their West Texas communities on Saturday and Sunday.

"It was unbelievable, just horrific. There were horses on fire, buildings on fire, houses on fire," said Bob Dillard, a former Jeff Davis county judge and editor of the weekly Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch.

Ranchers were combing the burned landscape Monday looking for the remains of charred cattle and other animals to dispose of. There's also plenty of fencing that's destroyed on ranches during wildfire, making it difficult for ranchers to keep their animals on their property.

Fort Davis-area rancher Bobby McKnight, 50, said Monday that he was worried last week about how whether he'd have enough feed for his cattle if it didn't rain soon. Now, he's now dealing with the loss of his parents' 100-year-old home, which he thinks burned down because wildfires caused a nearby gas tank to explode.

Three horses were killed.

He was there for a time as the fires raced north from Marfa, taking about two hours to go the 21 miles. He left to check on his own home and used sprayers to wet down his home.

"It was close," said McKnight, a lifetime rancher. "The fire was just at our front door."

Thirty-three states have sent firefighters or equipment to help Texas battle the wildfires this year, the state forest service said.

There is also a group of about 60 people from southern states that is managing planning and assessment of the western-most fires.


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