USA — More than 10 wildfires throughout the Big Country blistered hundreds of thousands of acres Friday, killing one volunteer firefighter and injuring two others, destroying at least 32 homes and prompting evacuations in several area communities.
Texas Forest Service officials said their resources were stretched to the limit Friday with 1,000 personnel from 35 states battling blazes throughout Texas.
“We had to turn down five requests (for assistance) Friday,” said Marq Webb, public information officer for TFS, who added more personnel and equipment are set to arrive today.
In Eastland County, volunteer firefighter Greg Simmons died when fire swept over his vehicle. Two other firefighters were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries.
Range fires raged in every direction of Abilene from Knox and Stonewall counties to the north, Coke to the south, and Callahan, Eastland, Stephens and Palo Pinto counties to the east.
A cold front that moved into the area Thursday prompted high, gusty winds to shift to the north and northwest, driving the fires south and east. Wind gusts Friday were reported as high as 63 mph.
“Winds that high drive wildfires to a critical point to where they are hard to contain.” said Joel Dunn, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
Overnight the winds were expected to die down with gusts in Abilene and the area only expected to reach 20 miles per hour today.
Among the fires causing problems Friday were the Cooper Mountain Ranch Fire, north of Rotan; the Wildcat Fire, north of San Angelo; the PK West Fire in Stephens County; and the Hohertz Fire in Palo Pinto County, and the East Sidwynicks Fire, near Gorman.
Cooper Mountain Fire
The Cooper Mountain Ranch Fire, a monstrous fire north of Rotan in Fisher County, grew to almost 150,000 acres Friday.
Jason Hull summed up the fire situation in Rotan fairly succinctly: “There’s fire, and it’s everywhere.”
A firefighter with the Rotan Volunteer Fire Department, Hull was manning the command post inside the fire hall, after city officials forced Chief Robert “Pa” Hoffman to get a few hours of rest.
Fisher County Sheriff J.A. Robinson flew over the area early Friday in a Department of Public Safety helicopter and later assessed damage on the ground.
“North of town it looks like the backside of hell,” Robinson said.
Lee McNeely, spokesman for the TFS, said the wind was too strong for their reconnaissance helicopter to fly, and officials were unable to immediately update estimates on the size of the fire.
Fire encroaching on the city of Rotan forced the Texas Department of Public Safety to evacuate the city for several hours Thursday night. Patients and residents of the Fisher County Hospital on Highway 70 between Rotan and Roby were sent to Sweetwater because of the thick smoke being driven into the city.
Plowed fields north of Rotan halted the advance of the fire and sent it branching off to the east into pasture and ranch land, and west into an area pockmarked by deep canyons.
Throughout the night, fire crews constantly reinforced by new arrivals from neighboring counties worked to cut fire breaks and protect homes and structures that were threatened.
Rotan Mayor Lynn Gibson said they had used more than 250,000 gallons of city water to douse the flames.
“And a Texas Forest Service guy told me those helicopters had drained every stock tank in a 100-mile radius. Those won’t get filled again until we get some decent rains, and we haven’t had good rain since last September,” Gibson said.
Possum Kingdom fire
Fires in Stephens County around Breckenridge forced the evacuation of 200 homes, officials at TFS reported. So far, the main PK Fire has charred more than 20,000 acres and destroyed 30 homes.
Residents from Possum Kingdom Lake were evacuated to Breckenridge, officials there reported. The Red Cross opened up an evacuation center at the Trinity Baptist Church. Two other blazes in Stephens County scorched almost 400 acres.
On Friday the PK West Fire shut down Highway 16 north and U.S. 180 on the Stephens, Palo Pinto county lines.
At 9:40 p.m. officials in Breckenridge announced that Highway 180 East would shut down overnight.
A fire at the Hubbard Creek Reservoir burned between 300 and 500 acres and forced the evacuation of between 40 and 50 homes at the reservoir, officials at the Breckenridge Fire Department reported.
While fires burned in several areas in Stephens County, high winds ripped the roofs from two homes, and sparked a blaze at a gas station inside the city limits. Fortunately, fire crews were returning to town and were able to extinguish the fire at the gas station.
Power lines sparked grass fires in northeast Stephens County near the Necessity and Frankell communities, which were under control Friday evening.
No firefighters were injured, officials reported.
“They are just tired,” said Cecil Ransaier, chief of the Wayland Volunteer Fire Department, which was on the scene along with Breckenridge and Hubbard Creek fire fighters.
Palo Pinto County
The communities of Mingus and Gordon near Strawn were evacuated Friday night because of a 6,500-acre fire burning in Palo Pinto County. Officials at the Palo Pinto County Sheriff’s Office ordered the evacuations and put residents in Strawn on standby.
U.S. 180 and State Highway 16 west were shut down due to fires, officials said.
A 3,000-acre fire in Gorman claimed the life of a firefighter and forced the evacuation of the town Friday. Residents went to De Leon and Eastland, but by late afternoon, they were allowed to return home.
“Mother Nature cooperated when the wind died down after dark it really helped a lot,” said Eastland City Manager Ron Holliday. Holliday said fire crews had contained the two fires.
“We are hoping it stays this way in the morning (Saturday) and we don’t have any more fire.” he said.
‘I couldn’t go’
North of Rotan, along Highway 70, Clay Wilfong and Troy Barker were trying to prevent a barn on their property from joining the list of structures destroyed by the fire. Using a trailer-mounted tank, they sprayed water on the asphalt shingles on an outbuilding and the surrounding brush.
“I know this probably won’t do much good,” Wilfong said. “But at least it gives me something to do.”
Wilfong said he was stuck Thursday night, when Highway 70 north and south of his property was closed down.
“There was fire all the way around me, and I couldn’t go anywhere. I would have evacuated if I could, but with the roads blocked, all I could do was drag my stuff out in the middle of my wheat field and hope it didn’t burn,” he said.
Friday, Wilfong loaded up 35 head of cattle and drove them to Sweetwater, to store at the sale barn until the danger passed.
The Swenson Fire, which burned more than 103,000 acres last week and destroyed several unoccupied structures, rekindled Friday because of high winds. The fires kicked up in several locations burning more than 1,400 acres, TFS officials reported.
The Wildcat Fire in Coke County burned 42,000 acres and chugged south toward Grape Creek Thursday and Friday, scattering evacuees from rural homes in its path and defying the efforts of more than 100 personnel from 20 agencies to stop it.
A low wall of smoke hugged the horizon north of San Angelo all morning. Phone calls into the newspaper, radio stations and city and county offices transmitted the voices of a community in fear as rumors spread and died.
Highway 208 at the north end of Tom Green County was put under voluntary evacuation overnight, and about midmorning a handful of homes on March Road north of Grape Creek were evacuated as the fire moved southward, driven by winds up to 30 mph and more. Heavy equipment moved up March Road toward the leading edge of the fire, and 14 agencies brought about 100 personnel to the fight.
It was a losing battle.
“We made efforts this morning to contain it, but it’s still out of control,” said Jose Rivera, public affairs spokesman for the Grape Creek Volunteer Fire Department.
“The fire is moving back and forth, like a wave,” Rivera said.