Update: Residents of West Texas Town Moving on after Fire Scare

February 28, 2008

Spared the wrath of a fast-moving wildfire that shifting winds turned elsewhere, thankful residents of this small West Texas town worked Tuesday to get back in their routine.

Schools were closed for the day but expected to reopen Wednesday, two days after a fire forced the town of about 1,200 residents to evacuate. Most of the damage was limited to hunting-related structures and trailers, said Robert Lee Mayor Joe White.

Since Monday, fires have scorched about 250,000 acres.

The Silver fire in Coke County that threatened Robert Lee was about 20,000 acres. Officials there decided to clear out the town Monday not long before a wind shift kept the fire away.

“It saved the town,” White said of the wind. “Things are back to kind of normal. We feel very fortunate and very blessed.”

The so-called Glass fire grew to about 219,000 acres Tuesday, said Anne Jeffery, an information officer for the Texas Forest Service. It wasn’t threatening anything.

The Glass fire, which stretched 40 miles at its longest point and 20 miles at its widest point, has burned over three counties: Sterling, Irion and Tom Green, said David Abernathy, an incident commander with the forest service.

Robert Lee schools Superintendent Aaron Hood, a lifelong resident of the town about 250 miles southwest of Dallas, sent his wife and two children to nearby San Angelo overnight while he helped with evacuations.

“It’s still hot here,” Hood said Tuesday morning. “You can still smell the smoke and smell the fire. If the high winds get up again, we just have to be ready.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, the latest outbreak of wildfires had threatened more than 570 structures, including about 200 in Odessa on Monday. Seven structures were destroyed, Jeffery said.

A fire of about 10,000 acres burned in Archer and Young counties, Abernathy said. That fire was contained on Tuesday.

Four firefighters were injured in a head-on collision of fire trucks in Archer County on Monday, and one remained hospitalized in stable condition a day later, said Becky Pursur, the county’s emergency management coordinator. Jeffery said two firefighters in West Texas were treated for smoke inhalation Monday.

The numbers of damaged structures and injuries were small because the fires were mostly in rural areas, officials said.

The strong winds and dry air that make for dangerous fire conditions shifted to the central part of the state Tuesday and extended to Brownsville in South Texas, said Joe Harris, the program leader for fire weather at the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.

Harris said the state is caught in a pattern that pulls in dry, warm air, a trend he said probably will last until mid-March.

“It’s a very nasty situation for the people close to these fires,” he said.

The good news, Harris said, is that warmer temperatures will help turn vegetation green earlier, which will help slow the spread of fires.

Many of the fires are likely started when strong winds down power lines, Harris said.

Wildfires have burned about 300,000 acres and destroyed at least 60 homes and other structures in the past month. Two years ago, numerous outbreaks scorched 2.25 million acres statewide and killed 20 people.

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