Wildfire keeps TX town on edge

Officials worry about Friday's wind forecast -- precautionary evacuation announced for city with fire within two miles.

BY VICKI DESORMIER | ARCHER CITY, TX | February 28, 2008



"We've been seeing really bad fires for about three weeks"

—Capt. Mary Meredith, Salvation Army


A wildfire was just a mile and a half away from this city Thursday as Archer County officials announced a precautionary evacuation moving jail prisoners and nursing home patients out of the area and closing the local school early.

The 13,548-acre wildfire started Monday. Red flag warnings have been posted for much of Western North Texas Friday. Weather officials said winds could gust to 35 mph.

According to Anne Jeffrey, a spokeswoman for the Texas Forest Service, "significant progress" has been made by firefighters on a 220,000-acre blaze known as the Glass fire near San Angelo. At one point, the big fire was 20 miles wide and 40 miles long.

In other parts of the scorched state, fires are expected to be burning out of control for some time to come.

According to residents of Robert Lee, the heavy rains last summer caused lush growth of grass and indigenous plants throughout the region to flourish. But freezing weather this winter killed all the plants and left a dry carpet of plant material that has ignited easily and provided ample fuel to keep the fires going.

"We've been seeing really bad fires for about three weeks," said Capt. Mary Meredith of the Salvation Army in Kerr County, which is about 60 miles southwest of Austin. "We have been seeing winds of about 30 miles an hour and it is so dry."

Humidity levels have been in the seven to 12 percent range, weather forecasters report.

Close to 200,000 acres of west Texas have burned since the beginning of the week, Eric Jones of the American Red Cross in Austin, said. The largest single fire is one of upwards of 140,000 acres about 50 miles west of Robert Lee.

In Robert Lee, a town of 1,100 people, residents were urged to evacuate Monday when fires swept close to the populated areas. Schools were closed and a shelter was opened, although most people stayed with family and friends.

Right now, Meredith said, the need for responders has been low because those who have been forced from their homes have gone to stay with family and friends. There will be some need for rebuilding on a small scale once the flames have been completely contained.

She said there were several incidences in Mason County where firefighters were able to contain the flames just feet from homes, keeping damage to houses to "an absolute minimum." She said the firefighters are putting out flames that are threatening houses first and moving on to the larger fires in unpopulated areas only after the houses are safe.

"But we have a lot of wildlife that is really suffering from these fires," Meredith added.

The Mason County fire started when a transformer blew and the resulting sparks caught nearby dried grass on fire. Winds fanned the flames and soon it had spread throughout the area. State forestry officials and local volunteer fire departments have dug trenches around the fires to keep them from spreading to homes.

State Emergency Management officials said "large fires" have been reported in 18 counties and that local disaster proclamations have been issued for 25 counties. Official statistics have not yet been compiled as the firefighters are still working at getting the fires under control.

While most of the major fires are now under control, there continue to be hot spots throughout the region and high winds could fan any of those spots into large, uncontrolled blazes very quickly. Firefighters are continuing to monitor every fire that is not completely out to keep the blazes from re-erupting.

Meredith said the fires in some areas were started by carelessness, while others were just unlucky circumstance, as was the case in Mason. Other fires have been started by backyard barbecues getting out of control or by smokers flicking cigarettes from their car window.

In Snyder, a grass fires over the weekend burned more than 20,000 acres and burned nine homes and 12 barns and other outbuildings.

A fire was started In Clyde when a bulb in the lights at the Little League ball field burst and sent sparks showering onto the dry grass of the field. Nearby residences were evacuated but the fire, fanned by winds of nearly 40 miles per hour and almost non-existent humidity, spread rapidly and kept firefighters busy for most of Monday.

"It's just awful, the way it is burning," Meredith added, "but we have been so fortunate that no one has been hurt."


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