Kathy Lanpher was showing a property to a client when she heard the improbable, gut-wrenching news: a wildfire like the one that destroyed her home four months ago was threatening the nearby subdivision where she had relocated.
The real estate agent raced back to her condo, grabbed a few belongings and – hearing that flames had cut off the road to safety – headed to the marina, where she and dozens of frightened neighbors eventually made it to safety by boat.
The wildfire that started Tuesday in the Possum Kingdom Lake area – one of several in drought-stricken Texas and Oklahoma – had destroyed more than three dozen homes and scorched some 6,200 acres as of Wednesday. It had a long way to go before reaching the destructive heights of the spring blaze that lasted two weeks and destroyed 160 homes here, but the late-summer blaze suggests Texas is dealing with its third yearlong wildfire season since 2005 – and its most severe.
“It’s become entrenched. It’s gotten to the point where normal rain events will have little positive impact on the drought and consequently the fire danger. It’s going to take … a weather pattern change,” Texas Forest Service specialist Tom Spencer said.
Texas is enduring its most severe drought since the 1950s, with bone-dry conditions made worse by weeks of triple-digit temperatures in many cities. Blazes have destroyed more than 5,470 square miles since mid-November, the typical start of the wildfire season.
Firefighters haven’t had much of a break this summer, even after various crews battled what turned out to be seven of the 10 largest wildfires in state history this spring.
Usually the wildfire season wanes in the spring because of rain, greener vegetation and higher humidity, weather experts said. But the state’s normally wettest months – April through June – were anything but this year because of the lingering La Nina weather condition that causes below-normal rainfall.
Spencer said the three yearlong wildfire seasons are the only ones the Forest Service has recorded, but there are no records from the droughts of 1918 and the 1950s.
The subdivision burned by Tuesday’s blaze was the only one in the Possum Kingdom Lake area left unscathed by the spring fire, and the exact number of homes destroyed was still unknown late Wednesday, officials said. Some streets were left virtually untouched, with homes fronted by lawns that could double as putting greens, but others were reduced to rows of scorched stone fireplaces and twisted metal frames.
“It’s devastating, of course, and it’s going to take a while to get over, but we’re going to carry on,” Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer said.
Lanpher said after she lost her home to the April fire, she moved into a nearby condo to be close to her real estate job. She had already received her insurance money and was reviewing house building plans while buying new clothes and furniture. The fire missed her condo Tuesday, but the danger had not passed as the wind-whipped blaze spread Wednesday. Lanpher still hasn’t gotten over the first blaze, she said, her eyes welling with tears.
“Honestly, I was thinking, `I don’t think I can go through this again,”‘ she said Wednesday. “I have my moments and then I move forward, but I just can’t dwell on it yet.”
Mercer said that unlike April, when residents had to be told three or four times before they’d leave the area, those whose homes were threatened Tuesday left as soon as they were warned.
Flames blocked the road leading out of the subdivision and hemmed in a group of several dozen residents and law enforcement officers, so they turned back and escaped by boat on Possum Kingdom Lake, Mercer said. It took about six or seven trips, but everyone escaped safely, even if some of them left with frayed nerves, he said.
“A little old lady was just shaking. These people were leaving with just the clothes on their backs, and they don’t know what’s going to happen to their homes and their stuff,” Mercer said.
In Oklahoma City, Deputy Fire Chief Marc Woodard said that a flyover Wednesday showed that a wildfire burned some 3,000 acres and destroyed 21 homes on the city’s outskirts. He said four homes appeared to have been damaged but were salvageable.
Fire Chief Keith Bryant said he was concerned that Wednesday’s windy, dry weather could re-ignite hot spots.
Red Cross spokesman Rust Surette said several hundred homes were evacuated.
Emergency Medical Services Authority spokeswoman Lara O’Leary said four people, including two firefighters, were treated for minor injuries in the Oklahoma City blaze. John Nichols, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service, said at least three people were slightly hurt, including two firefighters fighting the blaze in the Possum Kingdom Lake area.
(Associated Press writers Jamie Stengle in Dallas; and Sean Murphy and Ken Miller in Oklahoma City contributed to this report)
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