55 homes destroyed by wildfires in Amarillo

55 homes destroyed by wildfires in Amarillo

01 March 2011

published by www.lubbockonline.com

USA — Air saturated with remnants of smoke hung over fire scenes where cedars glowed red from heat. Charcoal tree limbs reached for blue sky. And stunned residents strove to be patient as they waited outside neighborhood barricades, wondering what might be left of their material lives.

Texas Panhandle residents struggled to recover Monday from a Sunday when “nature took charge.” Winds blasting 69 mph propelled sparks across parched land, torching as many as 55 homes in Potter and Randall counties as people fled and pets perished or ran wild.

Winds pinned firefighting aircraft to the ground Sunday, leaving hundreds of first responders to battle blazes at ground level.

“Nature was in charge (Sunday),” Texas Forest Service spokesman Lewis Kearney said. “And sometimes when you get winds that severe, you can’t do anything but try to herd the fires and flank them. That’s the safest thing you can do. You can’t get in front of them with aerial assets.”

Blazes clustered together to savage tens of thousands of acres in Potter and Randall counties, causing the Texas Forest Service to craft umbrella names to identify their general paths of destruction.

The smallest spark could take wing and feast with abandon on grasses bereft of moisture, Potter County authorities emphasized in announcing Sunday’s arrested of a 52-year-old man they said accidentally started a blaze in a rural field about a mile north of St. Francis Avenue in Potter County. Authorities said Austin Lynn Stephens was using a grinder to cut pipe or metal.

Authorities charged Stephens with misdemeanor criminal trespassing for being on the property without permission. He posted bond and was released Monday.

That blaze was among wildfires the Texas Forest Service dubbed the Willow Creek South Complex, a cluster that swept through Willow Creek, Mesilla Park and other areas of north Potter County.

The fiery tongues of the Tanglewood Complex in Randall County licked the canyonlands of the villages of Tanglewood, Timbercreek and the Palisades, as well as Hunter’s Canyon.

No cause of the Randall County blazes has yet been identified.

“We have investigators out today looking at the potential causes of the fires,” Xcel Energy spokesman Wes Reeves said. “We cooperate with the authorities on that. … This can sometimes take weeks.”

The Willow Creek complex swallowed anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 acres, a wide range plucked from early estimates by the Amarillo-Potter-Randall Emergency Operations Center and Texas Forest Service.

Operations center personnel plotted blaze points reported Sunday by first responders in a Geographic Information System mapping program, drawing a 60,000-acre polygon. But the fire skipped sporadically through the area, said Kevin Starbuck, emergency management coordinator for the city of Amarillo and Potter and Randall counties.

Forest service aviators flew over the scenes Monday, Starbuck said. The service estimated roughly 30,000 acres burned, according to a fire service report late Monday.

The Tanglewood Complex scorched about 2,000 acres, the forest service estimated. The blazes were 90 percent contained but were not active.

Charlita Bynum, who suffers from asthma, remembers an embankment of red smoke advancing toward her Palisades home on Hill Street. She understands the home ultimately survived the onslaught but had not seen it for herself Monday.

Palisades was to remain closed at least through Monday night but could reopen sometime today, Randall County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Danny Alexander said.

Authorities allowed the last of the evacuated Mesilla Park and Willow Creek residents to return to their neighborhoods by midafternoon Monday.

Potter County employees issued stickers allowing passage only to people who live in those neighborhoods. The stickers could be obtained at Lighthouse Baptist Church, 5631 Pavillard Drive.

The city of Amarillo offered Potter and Randall counties the services of its building safety inspectors to survey homes, rating them on a Federal Emergency Management Administration-defined scale of 0, or no impact, to 3, or severe damage, Assistant City Manager Vicki Covey said.

“Then we’ll map that to give us a sense of what our damage is and determine whether or not either county might qualify for (federal) disaster assistance,” she said.

The counties and the city could then also partner to apply for funds to reimburse some of the fire response expenses, Covey said.

Starbuck wasn’t optimistic the damage would meet FEMA thresholds, however.

“The rule of thumb for that first level of federal assistance is 25 homes or businesses that are uninsured or underinsured,” he said. “That starts the federal process and will potentially bring in some federal assistance.”

The state will, however, coordinate assistance for victims that is provided through volunteer agencies — teams that, for example, will help clear debris and clean sites, assist with child care, and offer direct financial aid to people who lost homes, Starbuck said.

“There will definitely be that level of state assistance through the volunteers,” he said.

Xcel restored power to Mesilla Park about 8 p.m. Monday, Reeves said.

Three crews operated in the Palisades and restored power there by 6:30 p.m., Monday, he said.

The company hoped to restore power to most Willow Creek complex and Tanglewood Complex properties that did not sustain damage, and thus are able to receive power, on Monday night, Reeves said.

Blazes cut off natural gas service to more than 100 customer accounts in Mesilla Park, and 30 residences in Tanglewood, including 14 homes that were destroyed, Atmos Energy spokesman Roy Urrutia said.

Atmos crews surveyed systems in the areas to be sure no underground leaks were present and prepared to replace damaged meters, he said. But the systems were not to be repressured or service restored until late Monday night or today.

Village authorities at Tanglewood, Timbercreek and the Palisades must issue permits to residents of damaged homes, clearing those homes for occupation, before Atmos can act, Urrutia said.

Blazes across the state overwhelmed a Texas Fire Service that prepared in advance for peak fire conditions, Kearney said. Mutual aid agreements delivered fire assistance from municipalities across the state and the Texas Department of Transportation assisted with 53 personnel and more than 60 pieces of bulldozing equipment.

First responders asked for assistance in fighting about 30 fires in 14 counties across the state, and the service was able to assist in 25, he said.

“We were so tapped out on resources yesterday, there were times we couldn’t respond,” Kearney said. “I can’t say enough about the volunteers in Texas. They’ve worked so hard.”

A separate wildfire in the Country Club area northwest of Canyon covered about 420 acres, Starbuck said.

And a 10-acre fire at Rosita Flats north of Amarillo popped up but was 100 percent contained on Monday, the forest service reported.

Local first responders on Sunday also tackled blazes at Borger, where evacuations were necessary, as well as at Lipscomb, south of Dumas and southeast of Clarendon.

Those wildfires could be seen on satellite images coming into the Amarillo National Weather Service Office, Meteorologist Krissy Scotten said.

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