By Killeen Daily Herald staff
and wire reports
Strong, gusty winds of more than 50 mph blasted across Texas on Tuesday, driving fast-moving wildfires, downing power lines and delaying flights.
A grass fire in Oakalla, about 10 miles south of Copperas Cove in Burnet County, burned about 2,500 acres of land on Monday and Tuesday. No human injuries, lost structures, or lost livestock were reported in the blaze.
Thirteen fire departments, which included Oakalla, Briggs, Florence, Texas Forest Service and Fort Hood, worked for almost 30 hours to extinguish a blaze that was started at 1:30 p.m. Monday around County Road 208, said Ricky Smith, Oakalla Fire Chief.
"We stayed all night and went back out there today," Smith said on Tuesday. "We had a track vehicle from Fort Hood help us reach the hard to reach spots."
A total of 25 fire trucks were working the two day burning scene with some 55 firefighters, he said.
The department used more than 20,000 gallons of water to control the grass fire that was spreading quickly from strong winds, Smith said.
"We had gusts around 50 miles an hour," he said. "We had a lot of sustained winds at about 25 to 30 miles per hour."
The winds made the grass fire a lot harder to fight because they would blow embers up to 100 yards, Smith said.
The area is not heavily populated, but a handful of homes were evacuated and officials were concerned about livestock, said Capt. Jim Barho, emergency management coordinator for the Burnet County Sheriff's Department.
During a portion of Monday, the Burnet County Sheriff's office had to direct traffic on U.S. Highway 183 because the smoke was so bad, Smith said.
The fire threatened six structures, but none of them were harmed.
"We didn't lose any structures, probably just a lot of fence posts," Smith said.
A 3,000-acre fire was also reported in Bertram on Tuesday.
A smoky haze blanketed several cities in North, Central and West Texas, where swift-moving flames consumed about 2,000 acres of fields and forced home evacuations in Tarrant, Wise, Parker, Burnet, Nolan and Callahan counties. At least two dozen buildings were destroyed.
Two injuries were reported, both West Texas firefighters who were involved in a wreck. Some 152 counties – more than half in the state – were under a burn ban.
Several neighborhoods in Benbrook south of Fort Worth were evacuated as one fire spread to more than 400 acres, possibly started by someone tossing a cigarette onto an interstate median, Tarrant County officials said. Some houses in Fort Worth also were threatened by fires that have since been contained.
In North Texas, Wise County fires consumed more than 300 acres and destroyed at least 14 structures, mostly homes near Paradise, said Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Carrie Smith. Parker County firefighters battled 10 blazes, including one caused by trash burning, and had contained all but two – near Reno and Aledo – by the afternoon, although some homes were lost, said county spokesman Joel Kertok.
Herald reporter Mason W. Canales contributed to this story.
Six fires totaling about 150 acres south of Gainesville were either out or under control Tuesday afternoon, and no structures were damaged, said Ray Fletcher, Cooke County's emergency management coordinator. Several brush fires also were reported in Collin County.
In West Texas, a blaze destroyed about 200 acres near the small town of Maryneal, including two buildings used for storage and some sheds, said David Warren, chief deputy of Nolan County Sheriff's Office.
Two volunteer firefighters were injured when an 18-wheeler driver whose vision was impaired by the smoke rear-ended their vehicle, Warren said. One firefighter on top of the truck was thrown off, breaking his arm, while the other was taken to the hospital with a head and eye injury, Warren said.
In Callahan County, a 300-fire jumped a road and continued spreading, destroying several buildings after about 80 families were evacuated, said County Judge Roger Corn and Texas Forest Service officials.
Gov. Rick Perry has activated the state's Emergency Operations Center at level one, the highest level, his spokeswoman Allison Castle said.
"We take the threat of wildfires very seriously," she said.
Two CH47 Chinook Helicopters were on standby in Grand Prairie, ready to drop water on the fires, but crews were delayed by high winds, Castle said.
Six UH60 Blackhawk helicopters were on standby in Austin and San Antonio to deploy as needed. Two of those had been dispatched to Burnet, northwest of Austin, where firefighters had contained five of six blazes by the afternoon.
An observation plane also will go up to help coordinate ground efforts as soon as winds die down, Castle said.
The Texas Department of Transportation was working with local fire departments to provide fuel for fire trucks.
Some fires were caused by downed power lines as winds in North Texas were reported at more than 50 mph. Strong winds were expected until late afternoon, according to the National Weather Service. Low humidity trailing a fast-moving cold front created the extreme threat of wildfires.
About 26,000 homes and businesses remained without power across North Texas, down from 75,000 homes affected earlier in the day, Oncor spokeswoman Carol Peters said. Some outages were momentary and others extended, she said.
At the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, flights were delayed by about 30 minutes to an hour, and 26 outbound flights were canceled. Crosswinds have kept the airport from using four of its seven runways.
"It's an issue of safety for us," said airport spokesman David Magana. "When that wind is coming from your left or your right, it presents a danger."
Tuesday's events were similar to the scenario in late 2005 and early 2006, when strong winds, low humidity and dry, high grasses and brush set the stage for massive fires that scorched 2.25 million acres statewide, destroyed more than 730 homes and killed 20 people, including two firefighters.
"It's starting to seem like, 'Here we go again,"' Smith said. "With all the fires we have going today, it is reminding me of what happened in 2005 and 2006."
On Monday, the Texas Forest Service responded to four fires totaling nearly 10,000 acres in West Texas.
Strong winds in South Texas on Monday caused a motor home to veer across a highway and hit a tractor-trailer head on, killing the truck driver in the fiery crash, according to Texas Department of Public Safety.
AP staff writers Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, April Castro in Austin and Anabelle Garay, Jamie Stengle and Jeff Carlton in Dallas contributed to this report.