YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Fires burn Texas from 'stem to stern'

No part of the state is unaffected as fierce winds drive unprecedented blazes across more than 3,000 square miles. Professional firefighting resources pour in from around the U.S., but some small towns are left to defend themselves.

April 20, 2011|By Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times
  • A row of homes on Possum Kingdom Lake, northwest of Fort Worth, Texas, is left in ashes.
A row of homes on Possum Kingdom Lake, northwest of Fort Worth, Texas, is… (Ron T. Ennis / Fort Worth…)

Ranchers flung open gates in hopes their livestock could escape fast-moving flames. One family watched in horror as two of their horses caught fire and galloped away. Homes, barns, oil field pump jacks and thousands of acres of rangeland are now blackened.

Such were the scenes in drought-plagued west Texas, where the mammoth Rock House fire has raged for two weeks, part of a complex of more than a dozen fires stretching across a swath cut by the Pecos River.

No part of Texas has been spared. There are crown fires in the eastern Pine woodlands; fires around Dallas, Austin and Lubbock; and large fire complexes in the Panhandle and the Big Bend region of southwest Texas. The unprecedented blazes, which have scorched more than 3,000 square miles, have been driven by fierce winds, bringing much of the nation's professional firefighting resources pouring into Texas.

The state, said Texas Forest Fire Service spokesman Marq Webb, is burning from "stem to stern." Two firefighters have been killed, including one Wednesday, near Lubbock.

The fires continued to rage across Texas on Wednesday. Every heavy air tanker in the country is being deployed here, as are four C-130s and the California-based DC-10 fire tanker. A cold front eased back temperatures and raised humidity somewhat, but red-flag warnings remained in place in nearly every county.

Firefighting forces have been so overwhelmed that some small towns have been left to defend themselves.

Fort Davis' 35-man volunteer Fire Department raced to aid a neighboring town, Marfa, when most of the fires began two weeks ago, leaving its own community of 1,500 undefended. The Mile High Volunteers crew found a vacant house engulfed in flames, but saved every other home in town. But as they were working, 70-mph winds pushed the grassfire across bone-dry pastures, 21 miles to Fort Davis, where 1,000 visitors had gathered for an annual bike race and teens were shopping for prom clothes.

Just outside Marfa, Sheriff Rick McIvor watched from his SUV as 35-foot flames shot north, moving faster than he could drive. It seemed to McIvor that the fire was a sheet of flame, moving in undulating waves. Trying to keep his voice under control, McIvor radioed George "Judge" Grubb. The 69-year-old cattle rancher was in the fire station, where he has been a volunteer since he was a teenager.

"Judge, we've got a situation coming," McIvor said, adding that he'd get back as soon as he could.

The native black grama and blue grama grasses surrounding Fort Davis were tall and thick. The moisture in local timber had been recently measured at 2% — kiln-dried lumber comes in at 4% or 5%. It was hot, unseasonably so, with temperatures near 100 degrees. And everything was dry — dustier and more cracked than anyone could remember ever seeing before.

"We haven't had a drop — and I mean one drop — of precipitation of any kind since September," said Assistant Fire Chief Bart Medley, who, like most of the firefighters here, has a day job. He's the Jeff Davis County attorney.

Fires had been popping up in other parts of the state, in the piney woods to the east, in the suburbs of Austin in central Texas, as well as here in the Chihuahuan Desert. The Texas Forest Service had already issued dire warnings that a confluence of weather, drought, winds and an unlucky history were likely to unleash the worst fires the state had ever seen. The agency was proved correct.

Fort Davis was in trouble. The town's firefighters were in their rigs roaring back up Highway 17, chasing the same fire they had just herded out of Marfa. The fire's path, which began as skinny and spear-shaped, bulged as it went north, gaining size and speed as it consumed fuel. The wall of fire that neared Fort Davis was 5 miles wide.

The landscape in west Texas is adapted to fire, able to endure annual conflagrations. So too are its people. As the fire neared, ranchers rushed to gather their herds of black Angus, shoo goats and horses into barns or turn them loose to save themselves. One rancher's herd of cows and their calves fled the fire, but came to a dead stop at an impassable stock fence, where a shifting wind allowed the flames to catch them. In all, nine horses and 152 head of cattle perished.

By the time the Fort Davis firefighters returned, the town had caught a momentary break. The wind's caprice split the oncoming blaze in half and sent the flames around town. On U.S. Forest Service fire maps, Fort Davis is noticeable as a beige donut hole in an otherwise red-colored landscape.

But the wind lofted embers and ignited spot fires in every direction. More than two dozen homes were on fire. With every garden hose in town going full blast and fire crews pumping their reserves from tankers, more bad news arrived. Fires had incinerated power lines, and Fort Davis had no electricity. The Mile High Volunteers could no longer pump water with generators.

Los Angeles Times Articles