Evacuation order lifted near Possum Kingdom Lake

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by WALT ZWIRKO

WFAA

Posted on April 17, 2011 at 3:57 PM

Updated Sunday, Apr 17 at 8:44 PM

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Evacuation orders lifted

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The Texas Forest Service said the communities of Caddo in Stephens County and Strawn in Palo Pinto County were under mandatory evacuation orders Sunday afternoon as wildfires continued to spread, but those orders were lifted hours later when winds shifted.

Many residents ignored the official advice, choosing to wait it out as the fire slowly approached.

"It is a mandatory evacuation," said Texas Forest Service spokesman Dwight Dold, "but we can't go in and force them to leave their home."

Gov. Rick Perry on Sunday asked the White House to declare Texas a major disaster area.

Fifty-thousand acres of tinder-dry brush and vegetation in North Texas have now burned in fires that remain largely out of control.

"With the winds that we've got today, it's hard to be aggressive with any suppression activities; it's just too dangerous to get in front of that type of fire," said Texas Forest Service spokesman Marq Webb.

"The fires we're experiencing in some cases are moving four or five miles an hour," Webb said. "That's the length of a football field every minute."

In Strawn, the concern was that PK East, a fire that started east of Possum Kingdom Lake, merged with two other fires and was moving south toward that town, prompting the evacuation order at 2:15 p.m. Sunday.

Authorities in Strawn, which is about 70 miles west of Fort Worth, closed all roads heading into that community as police and fire agencies attempted to move more than 1,000 people out of harm's way in western Palo Pinto County.

Extreme weather conditions incorporating both high winds and extremely dry fuels are increasing the spread of wildfire in the Big Country of North Central Texas west of Fort Worth.

On Saturday, the fierce wind died down so that beleaguered firefighters could begin to get a handle on the dangerous fires. But the wind velocity picked up again on Sunday, creating the renewed danger.

More than 1,000 firefighters and ten aircraft have been at work trying to gain control of the raging wildfires, but the weather — with wind speeds up to 30 mph — is simply not cooperating. In some cases, conditions are simply too dangerous for fire crews who must withdraw for their own safety.

"As a friend of mine said, it's kind of like eating an elephant; you take one bite at a time, and that's about all we can do until these weather conditions lighten up," Webb said. "It's just something that's our of our control."

There is also new information about volunteer firefighter Greg Simmons, who died Friday in Eastland County. It has now been determined that Simmons, 51, was struck by a vehicle as he attempted to cross a road under conditions of poor visibility.

It was initially reported that he had been overcome by smoke before falling into a ditch.

In his request to President Obama, Gov. Perry said 252 Texas counties are presently threatened or impacted by wildfires.

Perry said fires have already burned more than 1,528,714 acres and destroyed 244 homes, while emergency personnel were able to save 8,514 homes threatened by fire.

Unfortunately, the forecast is not good.

"It looks like by Tuesday, temperatures could be approaching near 100 degrees out there with relative humidity less than 10 percent," said WFAA meteorologist Steve McCauley. "It is going to get much worse on Tuesday before it gets better."

WFAA reporter Jonathan Betz in Strawn and photojournalist Gary Ultee in HD Chopper 8 over Palo Pinto County contributed to this report.

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