Wildfires rage across five states of parched Southwest

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 03, 2011 10:27 PM
Wildfires rage across five states of parched Southwest

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - Gale force winds and drought spawned raging wildfires across five states of the parched Southwest on Sunday, damaging dozens of homes and businesses and forcing a Kansas town to evacuate, authorities said.

Wildfires were reported in Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas. In some cases, firefighters were struggling to bring them under control amid high and shifting winds.

West of Fort Collins, Colorado a fire blackened 4,500 acres, destroyed 15 homes, and residents of another 336 homes remain under evacuation orders, authorities said on Sunday.

The blaze, burning in mountain terrain about 65 miles northwest of Denver, is five percent contained, Reghan Cloudman, a fire information officer with the U.S. Forest Service, told Reuters.

Wind gusts in excess of 90 miles per hour fanned the flames, which grew from 20 acres Saturday to more than 4,500 acres overnight, forcing the early-morning evacuations.

Most of Colorado was under threat from wildfires this weekend because of a lack of precipitation, high winds and record warm temperatures.

A snow storm moved into the area on Sunday, aiding the 250 firefighters battling the blaze.

"It (snowfall) has calmed the fire down a bit, but there are still many hot spots," Cloudman said.

Two air tankers and a helicopter have been called in to make fire retardant and water drops, she said.

High winds and extreme drought across Texas fed fires that scorched more than 7,000 acres on Sunday.

Fire officials evacuated 300 homes, a power plant and a sewage and water treatment facility as a 1,500-acre grass fire crossed a highway and burned outside of Odessa, 360 miles west of Austin.

The Texas Forest Service was using a helicopter and bulldozers to support seven other agencies battling the blaze, spokeswoman Jeanne Eastham said.

Crews had stopped the fire outside a water treatment plant just southeast of the city, she said.

"It has not crossed that road, and they're holding it there, at this point," Eastham said.

More than three quarters of the Texas was under severe or extreme levels of drought on Sunday. Wind gusts of up to 43 miles per hour fanned the flames outside Odessa in the afternoon, but conditions improved in the evening, National Weather Service Meteorologist Douglas Cain said.

James Parks, director of emergency services for Red Cross Southwest Texas, said the evacuated area was a mix of rural houses and mobile homes. There were no reports of any buildings destroyed.

"They've asked people to leave, but they're not opening up a shelter," Parks said.

Roughly 20 homes and 400 recreational vehicles were reported threatened by a 2,000-acre fire outside of Justiceburg, 60 miles southeast of Lubbock.

The service reported a 3,000 acre fire near the Texas Army National Guard Training Facility in Brown County. Cedar, oak and grass burned, but only 12 homes were threatened, according to the service. The fire was four miles outside the city of Brownwood early Sunday evening.

Firefighters before noon contained a 2,700-acre fire in Schleicher County Texas sparked by welding, the service said.

In Oklahoma, more than 100 fires burned across the state, damaging homes near the panhandle town of Guymon and causing numerous highway wrecks, said Michaelann Ooten of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management.

The fires burned dry grasslands near Ada, McAlester, Norman, Sapulpa, Sand Springs, Lula and Tulsa. National Guard helicopters dumped water on fires near Lake Keystone and an a tanker from the Bureau of Indian Affairs helped battle a fire in Caddo County that threatened homes on Indian trust land, Ooten said.

In southwestern Kansas, the 1,100 residents of Satanta, including the hospital and long-term care facility, were asked to evacuate after an out-of-control fire burned about 1,000 acres and threatened 250 homes in the community, the local emergency management office said.

In New Mexico, a 2,000-acre grass fire in Ruidoso has forced the evacuation of some residents near the well-known Ruidoso Downs horse racetrack. Four homes were burned by the fire which grew rapidly on Sunday because of high winds, according to local media reports..

(Additional reporting by Elliott Blackburn in Lubbock and Steve Olafson in Oklahoma City; Editing by Greg McCune)