By Elliott Blackburn
LUBBOCK, Tex (Reuters) - A firefighter was killed on Friday west of Fort Worth as wildfires erupted across a wide swath of Texas, fanned by 60 mile per hour winds and feeding on brittle brush after the driest March in state history.
Gregory Simmons, 51, a firefighter in the community of Eastland, was killed fighting a fast moving brush fire near the town of Gorman, according to Eastland Mayor Mark Pipkin.
"To say we are shocked and saddened by this tragedy is a huge understatement," Pipkin said in a written statement.
Simmons was a 20 year veteran, including 11 years with the Eastland Fire Department, according to a city statement.
Simmons was the first death reported in fires that have scorched more than one million acres since February, according to the Texas Forest Service. A firefighter injured April 10 fighting a blaze in the Panhandle remained in critical condition in Lubbock on Friday.
At least nine separate fires were burning over 200,000 acres on Friday, and most of the fires were just zero to twenty percent contained by late in the day, according to April Saginor of the Texas Forest Service.
Strong winds have pushed fires sparked by metal work, train cars and lightning strikes across acres of thick grassland and tough terrain. Single-digit humidity and plentiful fuel have made every spark dangerous. Grasses and other plants that thrived in heavy rains last year dried to kindling over the winter.
"We're setting records for dryness and humidities and wind events that we've not seen here before," said Texas Forest Service spokesman Marq Webb.
Until Friday, the fires had been in rural areas and mostly away from heavily populated cities.
But emergency officials issued a mandatory evacuation for the northern suburbs of San Angelo in West Texas on Friday as wind gusts pushed wildfires sparked by lightning toward the city.
Flames were within a mile of a bedroom community of Grape Creek and roughly five miles from the outskirts of San Angelo, a city of more than 90,000, at the time of the evacuation.
Winds were gusting out of the north at up to 26 miles per hour, pushing the flames toward San Angelo, National Weather Service meteorologist Joel Dunn said.
All but a few holdouts in the small town of Rotan, population 1,100, were evacuated under clouds of thick smoke and ash for five hours Thursday evening as flames rushed in from the west.
The outbreak surprised crews who thought they had contained the fire far outside town, state fire information officer Les McNeely said.
Flames instead raced east at up to four miles an hour, he said. Empty cropland just outside the town gave firefighters the break they needed to protect it, he said.
"That's what happens out here when the weather and so forth, especially the winds, start pushing it when the fuel is this dry," McNeely said.
At least 50,000 acres burned in the fire, though high winds grounded observation helicopters and made the fire difficult to track through the rugged ranchland, he said.
"I could hardly drive this morning, not only from smoke, but from blowing dust," McNeely said.
State officials were cautioning residents across Texas to prepare for wildfires, including clearing dried brush away from homes and roofs. Texas Railroad commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones urged residents to move propane cylinders, a common fuel in rural Texas, away from homes and to clear brush around them.
(Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth; Editing by Greg McCune)