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Tx city evacuated in face of wildfires

Local church helps house evacuees as community deals with tragic death of firefighter

BY JOHN PAPE | EASTLAND, TX | April 16, 2011

"The fire, it's a bad one. . . This is pretty unusual to have this many fires going across the state at the time."

—Rob McCorkle, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

In the last week, massive wildfires raging across Texas have charred a half-million acres, claimed the life of one firefighter and forced the evacuation of an entire town.

Texas firefighters many in the high plains area west of Dallas and Fort Worth have responded to more than 80 wildfires in the past week. More than 500,000 acres have been burned.

As flames from one of the larger blazes approached, all of the residents were evacuated from Gorman, a city of about 1,200 people about 100 miles west of Fort Worth.

Many of those residents of were relocated to the First Baptist Church in Eastland, beyond the fire’s immediate threat area.

“The school, the nursing home and the whole city (were) evacuated," Gorman City Clerk Jill Rainey reported. Residents were told they could return home Friday evening.

A volunteer firefighter from Eastland died Friday afternoon battling one a blaze near Gorman. Eastland fire officials said veteran firefighter Gregory M. Simmons, 51, died after being overwhelmed by the advancing blaze.

“Apparently he was overcome by smoke," said Justice of the Peace James King. King pronounced Simmons dead at the scene along a rural road between Eastland and Gorman near the tiny settlement of Kokomo.

Eastland Mayor Mark Pipkin said Simmons had been a firefighter for more than 20 years, including 11 years with the Eastland Fire Department. Before that, he served 10 years with the fire department in the city of Sachse, north of Dallas.

“To say we are shocked and saddened by this tragedy is a huge understatement,” Pipkin said.

So far, no injuries have been reported in the community and no structures have yet been damaged, according to Eastland County fire official Daniel Morgan. The evacuation was ordered because of fears that high winds and dry conditions could spark a rapid advance of the blaze, putting the town and its residents at risk.

While the blaze has not yet hit Gorman, it has already consumed at least 30 homes. An exact count has not yet been completed because of dangerous conditions.

Barbara McCollum, the financial secretary of the First Baptist Church, spent much of Friday preparing to receive Gorman evacuees, including some of the nursing home residents. She was taking inventory of emergency shelter supplies, including cots, the church had from previous wildfire evacuations.

McCollum said the church invested in the emergency equipment after similar fires destroyed nearly 40,000 acres nearby several years ago.

Just to the north of the Gorman blaze, the Brazos River Authority reported two fires were burning around Possum Kingdom Lake. One fire was threatening about 200 homes around the recreational lake, while a second blaze was threatening a number of very expensive homes near the lake’s dam.

The authority, which manages the lake, urged residents to get out as quickly as they could.

State park officials also closed nearby Possum Kingdom State Park. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spokesman Rob McCorkle said campers were cleared out because two fires were burning within 12 miles on two different sides of the park and could quickly close access roads.

One of the blazes was advancing toward the park Friday afternoon.

“This being a weekend, it would probably be pretty full," McCorkle said. "They wanted to get everybody out.”

McCorkle also said the current outbreak of wildfires is one of the worst to hit the area in recent memory.

“The fire, it's a bad one," McCorkle said. “This is pretty unusual to have this many fires going across the state at the time.”

With continued high winds, low humidity and ongoing drought conditions, much of Texas remains a tinderbox. The Texas Forest Service said the portions of the state initially having the greatest fire potential had been West Texas and the Texas Panhandle, but that target area had expanded in recent days to include parts of north, central and south Texas.

At risk are all areas west of a line curving down from just west of Dallas-Fort Worth through Fredericksburg to Del Rio.

“The last week has been bad, but now even more people will be at risk,” said Tom Spencer, Texas Forest Service Predictive Services department head. “The wildfires could reach down into more densely populated areas.”

In the past seven days, the Texas Forest Service has responded to 81 fires. That number does not include an estimated 100-200 additional smaller brush and grass fires that were extinguished by local fire departments.

More than 900 firefighters from across Texas and 33 different states have been called to help battle the blazes, which have prompted the evacuation of more than 500 homes statewide.

Primary conditions sparking the outbreak of wildfires is the overabundance of dead vegetation which burns easily coupled with the ongoing drought.

This past March, a month that usually brings spring rains to Texas, was listed as the driest March in recorded history. That was further compounded by last fall’s tropical storms brought rains that caused rapid growth in grass and shrubs, vegetation that died during the winter freezes. Those tall, dead grasses and shrubs now serve as a sort of kindling, according to the forest service.

Making matters worse are the strong spring winds, which increase wildfire rates of spread to 3 to 4 mph — about one football field every minute. Though the gusty winds are typical in Texas this time of year, the abundance of critically dry vegetation is not.

The Texas Forest Service and local fire officials are strongly urging residents in affected areas to monitor conditions and information provided by local authorities, and to be ready to evacuate should the need arise.

“We’ve experienced accelerated drying for the last 14 days,” said Texas Forest Service Fire Operations Chief Mark Stanford. “We’re really in uncharted territory here where weather will dominate the landscape and vegetation is at record dry levels for this time of year.”

Earlier this week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry visited the Texas Forest Service’s Incident Command Post in Merkel, just west of Abilene, after taking an aerial tour of some of the extensive wildfire damage.

Joined by Texas Forest Service Incident Commander Gary Bennett, Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd and Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples, Perry told Texas Forest Service he was proud of their response to the unprecedented wildfire outbreak.

Perry noted that since the current wildfire season began on Nov. 15, more than 1 million acres have burned across the state, taxing the resources of the forest service, local fire departments and Texas firefighters.

“My hat’s off to these firefighters,” Perry said. “Thank you with all my heart.”

Kidd, a former firefighter, said he was “honored to be standing among those who coordinate the response efforts and fight the fires.” He also pointed out most of the firefighters on the fire lines were volunteers.

“There are so many volunteer firefighters out there doing this for the love of the game,” Kidd said.”

Ironically, April is “Wildfire Awareness Month” in Texas.

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First Baptist Church, Eastland, Tx

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