Wildfires again rage through Texas and Oklahoma

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 31, 2011 7:53 PM
Wildfires again rage through Texas and Oklahoma

By Marice Richter

DALLAS (Reuters) - Wildfires raged through Texas and Oklahoma again on Wednesday, threatening homes and buildings and charring thousands of acres of parched, dry land.

The Texas Forest Service has declared this to be the worst fire season in the state's history. Forest service officials, along with firefighters in communities across the state have responded to 20,155 fires that have burned a record 3.5 million acres since last November 15.

Six of the 10 largest wildfires recorded in Texas occurred in April and 20 of the 40 largest were recorded this year, according to the forest service. Fires this year have destroyed 3,000 structures, including 679 homes.

The danger is not over as new fires continued to break out due to hot, dry weather and extreme drought that persists throughout most of the state.

In North Texas, firefighters were still trying to control a massive fire that erupted in a lakefront community west of Fort Worth on Tuesday.

Central Oklahoma remained under a red flag fire warning on Wednesday, the day after a wildfire destroyed 33 homes in northeast Oklahoma City.

Evacuations at Possum Kingdom Lake, about 75 miles west of Fort Worth, resumed Wednesday afternoon when the wind picked up and fanned the flames that firefighters had some success in containing overnight.

"As soon as the wind picked up, the fires started spreading quickly again," said John Nichols, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service.

The fire destroyed at least 39 homes and buildings and burned more than 6,200 acres by Wednesday evening. Property owners in several neighborhoods around the lake were evacuated by boat to a hotel on another area on Tuesday because roads were cutoff by the flames.

But as the fire again quickly spread on Wednesday, those evacuees were again forced to flee, along with others from neighborhoods that were unaffected on Tuesday.

"Fortunately we were able to move our car yesterday before it got too bad," said resident Laura Kirklen. "We heard a local church was sending a bus for some of those who had no other way out."

Firefighters were battling the fast-moving fire from the ground and air. Heavy air tankers, single-engine aircraft and helicopters were dumping water on the fires. Possum Kingdom Lake was the sight of the state's fifth largest recorded wildfire in April, when more than 160 homes were destroyed and over 126,000 acres were burned during two weeks.

"This is very unusual to have been hit twice like this in one year," said Steve Anderson, owner of a real estate company at Possum Kingdom, which is keeping residents up-to-date on the fire through social media. "We've had some small grass fires in the past few years, but nothing major."

Weather conditions were also to blame for 17 smaller fires that started in other parts of the state on Wednesday, including a fire near Lake Bridgeport, about 50 miles northwest of Fort Worth, which burned about 100 acres.

"The ground is so dry because of the drought that one welding spark or a cigarette tossed could easily ignite a fire," said Jesse Moore, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Fort Worth. "The high temperatures, low humidity and wind gusts quickly cause fire to spread." Similar weather conditions, with highs approaching 105, are again forecast for Thursday, he said.

In Oklahoma, the fire, fueled by dry vegetation and fanned by southerly winds, burned a 12-square-mile area and also destroyed a church, 21 barns and other outbuildings and 45 vehicles.

The fire smoldered most of the day Wednesday but flared up again in the late afternoon, just as another fire broke out on the southeast side of the city near Tinker Air Force Base. The fire near the base forced a portion of Interstate 40 to be closed to traffic due to smoke.

Other fires broke out around the state, including one near Lawton that forced the closure of the H.E. Bailey Turnpike due to heavy smoke, while other wildfires burned hundreds of acres near Tecumseh, Crowder and Seminole, the Oklahoma Forestry Services said Wednesday.

Oklahoma has been under a state of emergency since July 20 because of the extreme drought conditions and high fire danger.

Some radio stations have begun broadcasting a public service announcement taped by Governor Mary Fallin that reminded Oklahomans that discarded cigarettes and parking on dried grass often spark wildfires.

(Additional reporting by Steve Olafson in Oklahoma City; Editing by Greg McCune)