Texas firefighters brace for new wildfire battles

Mineral Wells wildfire

Credit: AP Photo / The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Ron T. Ennis

The Highway 180 shoulder continues to burn as a fuel tanker passes near Mineral Wells.

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Associated Press

Posted on April 17, 2011 at 1:40 PM

DALLAS (AP) — Firefighters across much of Texas braced for new struggles with wildfires Sunday as winds of 20 mph with gusts of up to 30 mph were again expected.

Wildfires have spread across more than 700,000 acres — about the size of Rhode Island — in the past week in drought-stricken Texas. About half a dozen massive fires are still burning.

Calmer winds gave firefighters a chance to get a handle on a few massive fires Saturday, and some residents were able to return to their homes — or what was left of them.

But scattered portions of the West Texas prairies and rolling plains and the East Texas piney woods were still burning as firefighters defended populated areas Sunday morning. Officials said wind shifts could make the difference between nuisance and disaster.

For example, a fire that has already blackened almost 200 square miles north of San Angelo could threaten the West Texas town of Robert Lee if winds swing out of the south, the Texas Forest Service said.

The threats have eased in other areas. As humidity increased, a wildfire that had threatened the historic West Texas town of Cisco was almost fully contained Sunday. Fire Chief Walter Fairbanks said he expected it to be fully contained by dark.

About 2,200 acres had been blackened in Eastland County and one home damaged in the town that's home to the first Hilton hotel that Conrad Hilton bought in 1919. Cisco is about 40 miles east of Abilene and about 100 miles west of Fort Worth.

Fairbanks said winds were blowing at 25 mph with gusts to 30 mph Sunday, but humidity levels that had been in the single digits had risen to 20 percent.

In Southeast Texas, firefighters had an 800-acre wildfire half contained Sunday after it threatened about 40 homes near Woodville in the Piney Woods of Tyler County, the forest service said.

A nearly 120,000-acre fire started more than a week ago by a welder's torch in Stonewall, Knox and King counties had been 90 percent contained by Sunday morning, and another 152,000-acre fire spanning parts of Kent, Fisher, Scurry and Stonewall counties was 50 percent contained, the forest service said.

A firefighter died Friday fighting another Eastland County fire. Eastland officials initially said volunteer firefighter Gregory M. Simmons, 50, died after being overcome by smoke and falling into a ditch. But a preliminary autopsy report showed Simmons died from blunt force trauma, said Trooper Phillip "Sparky" Dean of the Texas Department of Public Safety. The DPS will determine whether he died in a crash or after fleeing the vehicle, Dean said.

Simmons and other firefighters had leaped from a fire truck being pursued by flames.

Texas could be fighting fires for as long as two months because of drought conditions around the state, Texas Forest Service spokesman Steve Deffibaugh said. A sense of urgency will remain "until we get a significant amount of rain," he added.

 

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