WALNUT BEND, Florida — One of the largest grass fires in Cooke County’s history swept across thousands of acres, burned uncounted houses and contributed to one death.
Numerous people were evacuated from their homes as winds reaching more than 40 mph pushed flames through dry grass and leaves Tuesday evening.
It’s kind of like the perfect storm, Gainesville Assistant Fire Chief Wally Cox said as he directed fire vehicles at the command post near Walnut Bend School and referred to a movie in which conditions combined to doom a ship and its crew.
Persistent drought conditions, dry vegetation and high winds combined to create a wildland fire that raged throughout the afternoon, evening and into the early Wednesday morning hours. The National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for Tuesday stating that weather conditions were ripe for catastrophic fires, which then occurred throughout north Texas.
During the day, firefighters across the county responded to small fires before the large one at Walnut Bend broke during the early afternoon. Thirteen departments – Callisburg, Lake Kiowa, Gainesville, Oak Ridge, Gordonville, Whitesboro, Collinsville, Valley View, Moss Lake, Lindsay, Sherman, Sadler and Pilot Point – responded to the fire. The Texas Forest Service also sent a dozer to assist with creating fire breaks. Gilbreath Tanker Service sent semi-trucks with tankers of water, as well as the different county precincts. The Texas Department of Transportation also sent fuel for the fire trucks.
By 10:30 p.m., Cox said the fire was only 70 percent contained. Fire officials said they could not know the true extent of the damage until morning light.
We will be conducting a comprehensive survey of the fire damage this morning at daylight to determine how many homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed and the amount of land burned, Emergency Management Director Ray Fletcher said in a statement. At this time, we estimate that approximately 20 to 30 square miles were involved, more than 30 structures affected, and one fatality has been confirmed.
Through the night an orange glow lit up against a starry night sky as Cox and Fire Chief Steve Boone maneuvered trucks and firefighters in attempts to get ahead of the flames. People reported seeing the glow as far away as Marietta, Okla., and Denton.
The fire started when high winds caused overhead electrical wires to touch, which created sparks. Those sparks hit the dry grass behind Walnut Bend School and began to run to the east.
Something popped and electricity went off, said Linda Howard, who lives by the school, as she watched the flames move south toward the school.
As others gathered to watch, a young girl began to cry as she watched the advancing flames. Her mother put an arm around her and said See, here are the firefighters – they’ll protect your school, as they watched Gainesville firefighters drive through the fire line toward the school.
They did, but numerous other houses and structures burned. One woman lost her life as she battled the blaze at the former Walnut Bend Store.
Justice of the Peace Dorthy Lewis said Elena Morrison, 63, died while helping to battle the fire that burned near her house.
She and her husband were hollering back and forth, then he didn’t hear from her, Lewis said. Then the smoke let up and he saw her laying on the ground.
Lewis sent Morrison’s body to the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences for an autopsy to determine the cause of her death.
High winds swiftly pushed the fire to the east across pasture and caused it to jump County Road 127. The fire continued east toward CR 115 and crossed it. The fire also moved south and crossed FM 2383 and FM 678.
It just shot, Ann Shugart, of Walnut Bend, said about the speed of the fire.
She was inside with her son when they heard the sirens. When her son looked outside, he saw the flames racing across the pasture. She immediately began calling her family members, who are also her neighbors.
It’s scary because it’s so close to home, she said. That up there (referring to wildland fires earlier this year that burned about 1,000 acres), we knew the people by name. We know these people, they’re part of us.
Others experienced that fear and reality of the fire.
After the fire crossed FM 2383 and FM 678, Highway Patrol troopers, Cooke County deputies and Cooke County Emergency Medical Services personnel fanned out on the county roads north of Callisburg urging residents to pack and get out. Residents began congregating at Callisburg Community Center and Callisburg High School, hugging family members and friends while they watched the orange glow to the north and east and wondered what they would find when they returned to their homes.
Reports continued to come into the command center about structures and houses threatened or burning. Residents concerned about their property bypassed or drove through road blocks. Still others refused to leave their homes.
In an effort to stop the spread of the fire, which reached the Cooke-Grayson County line, firefighters set backfires on County Road 156 to burn the fuel in front of the advancing flames.
Access, the size of the fire and the wind caused problems for firefighters in getting ahead of the blaze.
The way the fire was moving was so quick, Cox said. It was blowing sheets of flame because of the wind. We couldn’t get ahead of it. We had to keep our people back in the burned area. You can only fight a fire so fast. It was moving too fast for it.
Cox said firefighters and other emergency workers faced a large-scale mop-up stage in which they would check burned buildings, put out hot spots and help get housing for families who’s homes burned.
Early Wednesday morning Robert and Judy Akins returned to what was their home on CR 118. Judy Akins said they left to investigate the fire and the source of smoke as their heavily treed property didn’t allow them to see to the north. When they returned to CR 118 in about five minutes, they were stopped by a road block and not allowed back through.
We said, Our house is there,’ she said. They said no, it’s not.’ It happened that fast.
Although they lost their house and possessions, she and her husband praised the work of the volunteer departments that patrolled and worked through the night and morning.
The volunteer fire departments did everything they could, she said.
As far as I’m concerned, I was impressed for a bunch of volunteer folks, Robert Akins said.
As the Akins looked at the charred remains of their house, she said, It looks like something was dropped here.