Wildfire forces evacuations at Possum Kingdom Lake

Print
Email
|

by JONATHAN BETZ

WFAA

Posted on April 18, 2011 at 4:23 PM

Updated Monday, Apr 18 at 4:42 PM

Possum Kingdom Lake

View larger map

STRAWN, Texas — The area around Possum Kingdom Lake has now been cleared of all residents and visitors because of the ongoing wildfire threat.

No vehicles are being permitted beyond a checkpoint at the intersection of Highway 254 and Highway 337. Highway 254 is closed to traffic.

A wall of flame was approaching Sportman's World at the south end of the lake late Monday afternoon. The U.S. Forest Service said multi-million dollar homes in the area are under threat.

Wildfires have spread across more than 700,000 acres - about the size of Rhode Island - in drought-stricken Texas. Those conditions endured Monday.

Weather was once again the largest threat as wildfires continued to threaten parts of North Texas, said a spokesman with the Texas Forestry Monday morning.

"If we do get the windy conditions, it's already tinder dry out there," said Marq Webb, Texas Forestry. "The fields are critically dry ... Add that with wind and low level humidity, and the windy conditions will just make it where it's extremely dangerous."

New blazes were detected in Tyler and Hardin counties in East Texas, where about 3,000 acres have burned in an area known for its thick forests. Webb said he was particularly concerned that the tops of some trees have been set alight by wind-carried embers, a phenomenon known as crowning.

"Fire builds up and gets into the tops of trees, it just races through the top," said Webb. "You don't normally see that kind of fire activity in East Texas. The fire factor is just running off the charts."

So far, the raging wildfires in North Texas have burnt at least 30 structures, much of that near Possum Kingdom Lake.

Parker County has been declared a local disaster area because of the threat of wildfire from neighbor hing Palo Pinto County.

Authorities at a command center said late Sunday they were making progress and slowly gaining ground on massive wildfires near Possum Kingdom Lake.

As of Monday morning, firefighters in Palo Pinto County were battling two wildfires. One was called the "Hohertz Fire," which is blazing just north of Strawn.

The new concern was a fire on the east side of Possum Kingdom Lake called the "Possum Kingdom East Fire." At the site of that fire, firefighters were holding the line Monday morning at Highway 337.

The damage in Palo Pinto County has been heavy, where 12 homes were destroyed by fire on Sunday.

On the front lines, firefighters are now battling both flames and fatigue.

"It is just dense, dense, dense smoke," said volunteer firefighter John Burgoyne. "This fire's been burning for three or four days now and everything's burning."

Heavy smoke hangs over much of Palo Pinto County as three large fires merged on Sunday, scorching nearly 55,000 acres.

More than 30 homes have been destroyed. And with flames just a mile away, county officials ordered for the first time a mandatory evacuation of the town of Strawn.

"It's just kind of been chaotic and crazy," said Strawn resident Carol Davis, who packed her bags -- but did not leave home.

"I don't have anyplace to go right now, and when we do it's going to be really hard," she said. "I'm trying to wait as long as I can."

Indeed, many of the 800 residents of Strawn ignored the evacuation orders.

"We felt like it was absolutely essential that we go ahead and evacuate the town rather than run the risk of winds shifting on us and the fire burning down into the town," explained Palo Pinto County Judge David Nicklas.

The winds did shift, pushing the fire away from Strawn.

On Sunday, the state beefed up its attack. Ten helicopters joined dozens of crews on the ground.

But the wind was still feeding the flames... and the fear in residents.

"It's been a really, really hard few days; it really has," Davis said.

Late Sunday, the evacuation order in Strawn was lifted, but the wildfire just north of the town remains only partially contained.

Firefighters said they could again lose control if the winds pick up again, as forecast.

Either way, officials expect to be doing battle with the wildfires for at least the next week.

Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Public Safety said a volunteer firefighter who died Friday had been hit by a vehicle after fleeing a fire truck trapped in a burning pasture between Fort Worth and Abilene.

A preliminary autopsy report from the Tarrant County medical examiner in Fort Worth said Eastland volunteer firefighter Greg Simmons died of blunt force trauma, Senior DPS Trooper Phillip "Sparky" Dean said Sunday.

Eastland officials initially said the 50-year-old firefighter died after being overcome by smoke and falling into a ditch.

A wildfire in Austin believed to have been sparked by a homeless man's campfire burned 100 acres and damaged at least 18 homes - numbers fire officials expected would increase once they could survey the destruction on Monday.

Austin Fire Department spokesman Chayer Smith said he expected the damage estimates to move "substantially upward" once firefighters went through the affected area.

Authorities believe a homeless man started the fire by lighting a campfire to cook amid strong winds and tinder-dry conditions that have left firefighters battling a spate of wildfires threatening communities across Texas.

The Associated Press contributed to this repot

Print
Email
|