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Texans flee deadly wildfires

Disaster responders help evacuees as firefighters battle out-of-control fires

BY JOHN PAPE | HOUSTON, TX | February 28, 2011


"It just leaves you feeling empty knowing people are losing everything they own. I just hope everybody got out in time."

—Oscar Martinez


Wildfires burning across more than 110,000 acres of the Texas Panhandle and High Plains have destroyed 68 homes and are being blamed for the death of a five-year-old girl.

One of the fires has prompted the evacuation of Matador, a tiny city of less than 1,000 people directly in the path of fast-moving flames.

Although it has a population of less than 1,000 people, Matador is county seat and largest city in sparsely-settled Motley County, which has a total population of less than 1,500 people.

State troopers and other law enforcement officials were literally going door-to-door telling residents to leave as the wind-driven wildfire targeted the community.

Justin Musgraves, regional fire coordinator with the Texas Forest Service called the situation in Motley County “totally uncontrollable.”

High winds and dry weather conditions have been hampering efforts to bring the blaze under control, including the grounding of air tankers, for several days. As winds make an expected shift to the north, the blaze is expected to prompt additional evacuations in the community of Roaring Springs, eight miles to the south.

The Salvation Army sent a disaster relief crew into the Matador area on Sunday to provide food, water and other supplies to evacuees and fire crews. Salvation Army spokesperson Melody Paton said volunteers in a Rapid Response Unit had already served more than 125 meals by Sunday evening.

Cpl. John Gonzalez with the Texas Department of Public Safety said “quite a number” of structures in Matador had “burned to the ground.”

“The fire reached the outskirts of town about 5:30 p.m. (Sunday) and that’s when we started to lose the buildings,” Gonzalez said.

Winds on Sunday were blowing 30 35 mph, giving weary firefighters few opportunities to halt the fast-moving flames. Firefighter Jerry Smith the fire was “moving so fast we can’t get ahead of it.”

“It’s a very fast-moving fire. We haven’t been able to get anything in the air and we haven’t been able to get in front of it to cut a firebreak,” Smith said. “Between the high winds and the dry conditions, this is a worst-case scenario for us. What we really need is for the winds to die down; this is a very dangerous fire.”

Matador resident Oscar Martinez said “it looked like hell had opened up.”

“You look out toward town and all you can see is smoke rising. At sunset last night, you could see the glow of the flames and it all had this eerie-looking haze and smoke,” Martinez said. “It just leaves you feeling empty knowing people are losing everything they own. I just hope everybody got out in time.”

State troopers and sheriff’s deputies had all roads going into Motley County blocked off because of the threat of fire and poor visibility due to heavy smoke.

Some 200 miles to the southwest near Midland, a five-year-old girl died in a multi-car pileup caused by heavy smoke from another wildfire. State troopers said Cameron Dominguez died after the pickup truck in which she was riding was struck by another car and pushed into the fire burning in the median of Interstate 20.

Trooper John Barton said a Chevrolet Corvette was forced to slow to a stop because of heavy smoke. The Corvette was then struck by a Ford pickup truck, a BMW, a Chevrolet pickup truck and an 18-wheeler. After the initial crash, at least three more vehicles ran into the pileup.

The resulting impacts pushed the Chevrolet pickup, driven by Juan Dominguez, off the road and into the flames. Dominguez was able to grab his nine-year-old nephew, Elijah Arp, and throw him over a fence to safety but flames had already engulfed the truck before he could rescue the five-year-old, who was his niece.

Both the uncle and nephew were taken by ambulance to Midland Memorial Hospital for non-life-threatening injuries. The driver of the Corvette, Luis Inguanzo, was taken to the same hospital where he was reportedly in stable condition.

Midland firefighters were able to contain that blaze before it reached a nearby mobile home community. The fire was brought under control around dusk Sunday evening but firefighters remained on the scene throughout most of the night, putting out “hot spots” and keeping the blaze from flaring again.

The Interstate 20 blaze was one of more than a half-dozen grass fires in the Midland area on Sunday, according to Battalion Chief Ken Whiting. The multiple fires stretched department resources thin and exhausted firefighters.

“Grass fires last a long time and can be really stressful to deal with, especially in these windy conditions,” Whiting said.

One of the fires destroyed a mobile home.

A fire in Howard County, 60 miles to the east of Midland, burned more than 30 acres and four homes. Another fire in the nearby community of Forsan destroyed three homes.

Howard County Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tommy Sullivan said firefighters were “getting slammed out here” trying to control the fire outbreaks.

In nearby Andrews County, firefighters from departments in the cities of Seminole, Lamesa, Andrews and Lenora spent most of Sunday trying to bring another massive wildfire under control.

An eight-mile-long blaze in Garza County, about 40 miles south of Lubbock, forced the closure of U.S. Hwy 390 leading to the county seat of Post. The fire started Sunday afternoon near the Post-Garza Municipal Airport and consumed one fire truck when wind-whipped flames overtook the fire crew. While the truck was a total loss, no firefighters were injured.

At the tip of the Texas Panhandle, at least 32,000 acres were reported burning north of Amarillo, with at least 30 homes in the Willow Creek area destroyed, according to Lewis Kearney, public information officer for the Texas Forest Services. Additionally, a fire near Lake Tanglewood south of Amarillo consumed 2,000 acres and damaged or destroyed at least 20 homes.

Some 150 firefighters from the Amarillo area were on the firelines, trying to bring the blazes under control.

The Texas Forest Service announced it was sending 16 fire engines from departments across the state into the affected areas. The engines, all brush trucks specifically designed to battle wildfires, were activated through the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System, a statewide agreement that allows communities to call upon each other during times of need.

Four command vehicles were also being activated.

As of Monday, much of Texas remained under “red flag” fire warnings. High impact fire weather that could directly threaten public safety continued to be predicted for much of the state, including all areas along and west of the Interstate 35 corridor. Wind speeds were expected to reach 35 to 45 mph with gusts up to 60 mph, which could push wildfires more than 100 yards — or about the length of a football field — in a minute’s time, according to the Texas Forest Service.

Gov. Rick Perry ordered the mutual aid activation based on the forecast.

The trucks and command vehicles were split into four strike teams and pre-positioned in Brownwood, Mineral Wells, Lubbock and Midland. A second and third wave of strike teams is at the ready, should they be needed.

“The Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System gives us the ability to shift resources from one part of the state to the other without depleting anything in the hot zone,” said Joe Florentino, TIFMAS state coordinator.

An Austin-area strike team was deployed to Brownwood, while a Denton County team went to Mineral Wells. The other two strike teams will be made up of new engines presented to departments less than two weeks ago through a TIFMAS grant program run by Texas Forest Service.

The eight new engines coming from Big Spring, Brownwood, Georgetown, Lewisville, Mission, Nacogdoches, Flower Mound and Cedar Hill were divided between Lubbock and Midland.

“It’s Texans helping Texans,” Florentino said. “When you think about how big the state is and all the resources, five years ago we would’ve had no way of doing this.”

The fire outbreak marked only the third activation for the statewide mutual aid system.

It was previously activated during Hurricane Ike and again on April 9, 2009, when nearly two dozen wildfires raced across the state, burning more than 150,000 acres and two entire towns in Montague County.

The current weather conditions are similar to those during the April 2009 fire outbreak.


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Neighborhoods face fire rebuilding

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