High wind, drought drive wildfires across Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico

Sunday, January 1st 2006, 12:04 pm
By: News On 6

CARBON, Texas (AP) _ Weary fire crews kept up their fight Monday to contain major grass fires across Texas that had burned dozens of homes and apparently destroyed a couple of tiny towns.

Other fires across the drought-stricken region had charred thousands of acres in Oklahoma and New Mexico, forcing hundreds of people to evacuate.

Officials warned that the dry, windy weather and extreme fire danger would continue.

``We don't know where we will be today,'' Oklahoma City Fire Department Maj. Brian Stanaland said Monday morning. ``At this point, we consider the whole city a target for grass fires.''

Computer models Monday showed no rain in the foreseeable future, said Jesse Moore, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Fort Worth. He said the region's last appreciable rain was about a quarter-inch on Dec. 20.

The biggest fire in Texas on Monday was a 25-mile-long blaze that had blackened 22,400 acres in Eastland County, about 125 miles west of Dallas. State officials were dispatching more helicopters and airplanes to battle that blaze near the small towns of Carbon, Gorman and Desdemona, said Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Traci Weaver.

Firefighters were close to encircling the fire Monday, but were concerned that an expected shift in wind would complicate efforts, Weaver said.

Fire survey crews flying over other sections of northern and western Texas on Sunday reported the tiny communities of Ringgold and Kokomo, which together were home to about 125 people, had essentially been wiped out by flames, Weaver said.

Crews planned to conduct a house-to-house search Monday for casualties in the two towns, as well as in Cross Plains, about 25 miles west of Carbon, where more than 90 homes and a church were destroyed by flames last week. In all, four deaths were reported last week in Texas and Oklahoma.

About 20 homes were burned out in the 13-mile stretch from Ringgold to Nocona, Montague County Judge James Kittrell said Monday. Six homes were destroyed near Mineral Wells, Weaver said.

Dozens of fires blackened the Oklahoma landscape as wind gusted to 50 mph, including 25 blazes within Oklahoma City that forced the evacuations of two neighborhoods. Four homes were destroyed, Stanaland said Monday.

Altogether, dozens of wildfires swept across more than 5,000 acres of Oklahoma and destroyed at least a dozen homes on Sunday, said Michelann Ooten, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Emergency Management.

One fire, in Cimarron County in the Oklahoma Panhandle, extended along 49 miles Sunday night and had charred 35,000 acres, said Michelle Finch, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department's forestry division.

Since Nov. 1, Oklahoma wildfires have covered more than 285,000 acres and destroyed 200 buildings, Finch said Monday.

``This has been an unprecedented year for fires,'' Finch said. Fire season in Oklahoma usually begins around Feb. 15 and lasts until April 15, but this past year the fires began in June and have gotten progressively worse, Finch said.

Just across the Texas state line in New Mexico, crews were mopping up Monday after four fires in the Hobbs area that had blackened more than 65,000 acres of grassland and burned more than a dozen houses and barns.

Some 170 elderly residents were moved out of two nursing homes in Hobbs on Sunday, and a casino and community college in the town of 29,000 were evacuated.

Most of the evacuated nursing home residents had been sent back to their quarters Monday, but 60 residents of one of nursing home and 50 to 75 other residents of the Hobbs area were still evacuees, said Ernie Wheeler, Hobbs emergency operations center director.

``It's real calm; nice and cool,'' Dan Ware, New Mexico state Forestry Division spokesman, said Monday morning. ``Basically, all the fires laid down and just kind of went to bed.''