West Texas deals with wildfire devastation

West Texas deals with wildfire devastation

01 March 2011

published by www.gosanangelo.com

USA — Fire 80% contained after 13,740 acres charred, 15 homes destroyed.

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.

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