Wildfires burn thousands of acres in Motley County, city of Matador spared

Wildfires burn thousands of acres in Motley County, city of Matador spared

01 March 2011

published by www.lubbockonline.com

USA — More than a dozen volunteer fire departments and state agencies on Monday continued to fight multiple hot spots remaining from two massive wind-driven wildfires in Motley County.

Miles of charred grassland and a light smoky haze hung over the south and west portions of the county, where two large clouds of smoke filled the sky.

“It was scary,” said Courtney Alexander, a Texas A&M University sophomore who had been visiting family in Matador over the weekend. “It was a haze. It was yellow — you could see the flames all over.”

As of Monday afternoon, the wildfires burned about 35,000 acres, damaged two houses south of Matador and destroyed several outlying structures including sheds, barns and fences, according to the Texas Forest Service. It was not yet known how many livestock were lost.

The cause was not yet determined.

With the help of Texas Department of Transportation motor graters and TFS bulldozers, fire crews had the wildfires about 75 percent contained, but the Forest Service anticipated it would take a day or two before the blazes are completely contained.

A Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter took to the skies to assess the extent of the damage; the forest service reported no aircraft was used Sunday because of the strong winds.

Justin Musgraves, Forest Service regional fire coordinator, said crews worked around the clock into Monday to take advantage of the calmer wind conditions, especially since winds were expected to pick up again later in the week.

Gusts reached as high as 55 mph at 2:35 p.m. Sunday from the mesonet site at Roaring Springs and stayed above 20 mph until about 3:55 a.m. Monday, according to the National Weather Service.

About 150 to 160 firefighters from 16 different volunteer fire departments responded to the fires that started sometime after 3 p.m. in a ditch near a roadside park west of Matador, said Chief Lee Jones of the Matador Volunteer Fire Department.

Crews dug trenches and used controlled burning techniques to contain the fires that spread west and south across the county. Jones guessed a few hundred thousand gallons of water were used around the city’s outlying homes and structures.

Within the first 20 minutes of the fire outbreak, he said Motley County Judge James Meador requested a state disaster declaration because of the speed at which the flames were traveling toward the city.

Motley County Sheriff Chris Spence and several other residents said they had never witnessed a wildfire of this size and were just thankful the town had been spared.

“The fire department did a super job saving the town,” said Spence about the Matador Volunteer Fire Department. “There was minimal damage to two homes, so we’re grateful.”

At 1 p.m., the fire department had originally been dispatched to a grass fire in nearby Roaring Springs, but several crews were called back to fight the new fire threatening their city.

Law enforcement evacuated the town of about 600 people to the basement of Motley County ISD at about 6 p.m. Sunday.The American Red Cross and Salvation Army provided cots and a warm meal.

Resident John Wallingford said his top priority was keeping his family safe so he brought them to the school and stayed there for three hours before returning home.

Interim superintendent Tom Alvis canceled Monday classes because it was not known how long the Red Cross would need to stay or if students would be able to travel to school. Regular classes resumed today.

Residents of a local nursing home were evacuated to a Paducah nursing home as a safety precaution, Spence said, and they returned to Matador on Monday morning.

DPS closed the U.S. 62/70 and Texas 70 entrances into the city at about 5 p.m. because of low visibility caused by thick smoke, he said. The roadways reopened sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight.

Dorothy Hanesworth recalled watching in disbelief as tall flames swiftly overtook her 3-acre pasture of mesquite and completely scorched the grass, barn, fence and garage at her son’s house next door.

She said she actually joined firefighters and tried put out the flames on her son’s fence with a long hose from her house. Her son’s house remained mostly unscathed while everything around it was burned black.

Seventh-grader Matthew Faulks also found himself caught in the middle of the blaze when he and his father went to unlock the gate to their barn for firefighters. Their barn and horses survived, but for about an hour, the two were stuck at a nearby gravel pit before they drove through 40-foot flames to escape, Faulks said.

The Forest Service and county officials will resume assessing the damage today.

The weather service reported Sunday’s high winds also contributed to the large wildfires spanning from eastern New Mexico to southwestern Oklahoma. Early reports indicated dozens of fires burned at least 140,000 acres and about 70 homes.

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