Fires in Texas

Fires in Texas

01 March 2011

Days after destructive wildfires tore across the Texas Panhandle, southeastern Texas became the scene of widespread fire. On March 1, 2011, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite detected numerous fires, marked in red, burning in southern Texas and Louisiana.

The fires are burning in dark green wooded areas, producing thick plumes of smoke. The fires are much smaller than the large fires that burned in the Panhandle on February 27. Texas Forest Service reported 13 wildfires that burned 288 acres on March 1—a small number compared to the 130,000 acres that burned in previous days. However, fires burning in wood generally produce more smoke and are warmer than grass fires, making them far easier to detect from space. By contrast, MODIS detected only a few of the large, fast-burning grass fires that destroyed homes in northern Texas on February 27.

Thanks to warm, dry, and windy weather, the risk of fire was high in southeast Texas on March 1, said the Texas Forest Service. 146 counties issued burn bans for the day. Between February 21 and February 28, the Texas Forest Service fought 71 fires that burned 136,699 acres.

Some Texas wildfires contained; most still spreading
Firefighters in Texas contained four wildfires and continued to fight 17 others as weather conditions Tuesday heightened the risk of the fires spreading, a forest official said.

Mark Stanford, chief of fire operations for the Texas Forest Service, called the progress significant.

As of Tuesday, 78 homes had been reported destroyed by fires, and that number is expected to increase as teams fan out to inspect damages, Stanford said.

More than 130,000 acres have burned since Sunday, and smoke from a fire caused an accident that killed a 5-year-old child Sunday on Interstate 20.

Officials believe many of the fires were started by power lines that fell from high winds.

Since Sunday, forestry officials, who were called in to assist local fire departments, have responded to 71 fires covering 136,699 acres, the Texas Forest Service said on its website. Most of the fires were across the Texas Panhandle.

The fires occurred in an area of about 45,000 square miles, the size of Kentucky, Stanford said.

Two of the biggest active fires were in Randall County, where 26 homes were lost, and Potter County, where 29 homes were lost. Those fires were 80% and 25% contained, respectively. Both were expected to be completely contained by day’s end, Stanford said.

But the 250 state agents and thousands of local firefighters tackling the blazes had other challenges Tuesday.

High wind and low humidity in the area created a high fire danger in the region, Stanford said.

“It puts more of a risk of these fires continuing to burn,” he said.

Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas said a 61,000-acre fire in his county was ignited when a man cut pipe with a metal grinder in high wind Sunday. Austin Lynn Stephens, 52, was arrested and charged with criminal trespass because he was on private property when he was using the grinder.

Firefighters battled blazes in a dozen other counties including a 35,000-acre fire in Matador West in Motley County, and a 21,000-acre fire in Andrews County, officials said Monday. They also fought fires in the counties of Haskell, Tom Green, Randall, Howard, Midland, Scurry, Motley, Crockett, Mitchell and Eastland.

One wildfire destroyed a dog kennel near Amarillo, Capt. Wes Hall of the Amarillo Fire Department said. Authorities were trying to account Monday for the animals missing or dead after the fire tore through the Willow Creek Kennel. Firefighters were able to open cages to free at least some of the dogs before the flames overtook the facility.

As many as 27 homes were destroyed in the area and “the fire was on the kennel in a matter of minutes,” employee Chance Smith said, adding he did not have an exact number of dogs lost.

In the community of Matador, north of Lubbock, families could do nothing but watch as their homes burned to the ground.

Juan and Rosemary Segovia hadn’t been gone 20 minutes when they returned to a panic-stricken neighborhood and found they had lost everything they owned.

“To know everything you worked so hard for, it’s all gone,” a tearful Juan Segovia told CNN affiliate KCBD. He and his wife stared in disbelief at the blaze.

The family of seven is without a home, but grateful for what was not lost.

“I’m glad our family wasn’t home when it happened,” Rosemary Segovia said before falling into her husband’s arms. “That’s all I care about is I have my family.”


West Texas deals with wildfire devastation
In the aftermath of wildfires that swept through Mitchell and Crockett counties over the past few days, the Texas Forest Service was calculating damage.

Lewis Kearney, a spokesman with the service, said the two fires in Mitchell County burned through 13,740 acres and destroyed 15 homes, including 13 near Colorado City.

“We’re calling it 80 percent contained,” Kearney said. “Contained means there’s a control line around it — could be a bulldozer line or where firefighters sprayed water and it’s not burning.”

Members of the Texas Department of Agriculture conduct assessments on livestock and miles fence lines lost. A phone message left with the USDA was not returned, but Pete Kampfer, city manager for Colorado City. said he’s heard the damage has been estimated at $1.5 million.

Firefighters with the forest service were in southern Mitchell County while other agencies and emergency response groups were taking care of issues closer to the city. Other than a flew flare-ups, crews mostly kept an eye on smoldering areas.

“It’s nothing significant,” he said. “The acreage is not going to grow.”

Kampfer said city and county officials are discussing clearing sites and demolishing what’s left of the burned structures.

American Red Cross, with representatives out of Midland and Big Spring, were stationed at a room in the Mitchell County Public Library Tuesday to assist families.

James Parks, Red Cross director of emergency services, said volunteers will available all week to collaborate with local law enforcement and churches to assist residents. A referral center will be in place after the group leaves.

“People are still going to need help,” Parks said. “This disaster is such a large magnitude they’re not going to recover that quickly.”

In a news release, Kampfer said the fire probably was caused by power lines clashing together near a pump jack, combined with 50-60 mph winds, according to the Abilene Reporter-News. As of Monday, 13 poles had been replaced to restore electricity, Kampfer said in a city news release, two fire strike teams were to continue monitoring remnants of the blaze.

Insurance companies conducted adjustments Tuesday, and people continued to clear debris.

“Most people are finding family to stay with,” Kampfer said. “Only one family right now may be a little on short side. Amy Wood, with Community Development, is working on that.”

To south, the 10-mile fires in Crockett County have been put out — or in firefighter terminology, they are “sit still sleeping.”

Firefighters working two days nonstop also went to sleep Monday night, after a 9 p.m. determination that the fight was over.

“We checked it again this morning,” Ozona Fire Chief Bob Faulkner said Tuesday. “That doesn’t mean it’s gonna stay out. But it’s looking pretty good, because we don’t have much wind today, and it was pretty cool this morning.”

Up to 9,000 acres of pastureland and hill country burned in the fire, which was concentrated around state highways 163 and 190. No homes or other structures were damaged, and there were no known livestock deaths.

“We had one Ozona firefighter receive minor injuries and was treated at the clinic,” Faulkner said.

Eleven surrounding area fire departments and the Texas Forest Service assisted in fighting the blazes. The chief wanted to mention each unit by name: Big Lake, Barnhart, Iraan, Glasscock, Sheffield, Sterling City, Mertzon, Irion County, Brady, Eldorado and Sonora.

Mutual aid firefighting units brought manpower, firetrucks, tankers and brush trucks. The Forest Service brought in two dozers and personnel and flew an airplane over the fire Sunday morning to check on things. A Forest Service water-dropping helicopter was on standby but in the end was not needed.

The cause of the fire was unknown Tuesday but weather conditions had been ripe for ignition. Abundant fuel in the form of dry vegetation, a windstorm Sunday which tore flames across prairies in several parts of West Texas, and an 87-degree day all contributed to the red alert burn ban.

Conditions were so high-risk before the fire that the Texas Forest Service on Saturday had moved personnel and equipment to be ready in Abilene and Fredericksburg.

Dispatcher Lue Morrow, who manned the station throughout the event, said she finally relaxed in her recliner late Monday night.

“The firefighters worked their tails off,” she said. “I’m proud of my boys. I really love my job. I want to keep them safe. When they’re out there I pray for them.”

She said she is legally blind but can still “talk and push buttons.” In her 12 years in dispatch for the county, Morrow has only once known such a fire as this.

“One kind of southwest of Ozona a few years ago in the summer, it took three days to put it out,” she said.

It’s the efforts and support of local people that amazes her.

“Texas is fantastic,” she said. “People really pull together. Like Big Lake and Barnhart had their hands full, and still came to help us. The astounding part is that they are all volunteers. One man took off from work, with permission from his boss.”

Local businesses and individuals sent food and water to the firefighters.

“The Ozona Fire Department wishes to say thanks for the response from local citizens who brought water and juice and food to the scene,” the chief said.


Previous reports from wildfires burning in Texas and the Eastern U.S.

Some aerial views of Texan grassfires (Photos © Cynthia Esparza, Standard-Times)


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