GRAHAM, Texas — Calmer winds should offer some respite Saturday in the effort to control wildfires that have killed one firefighter, destroyed dozens of homes and forced evacuations across parched Texas ranchlands, an official said.
Several fires fueled by strong winds and drought-stricken grasses and shrubs raged out of control about 150 miles west of Dallas on Friday, and Steve Deffibaugh of the Texas Forest Service said firefighters hoped to use the calmer conditions a day later to gain footing.
"They can go out and probably do yeoman's work this morning and try to get some containment to it," Deffibaugh said.
The evacuations included the entire 1,200-resident town of Gorman in West Texas, but the city manager in nearby Eastland said Saturday the evacuation order had been lifted.
Fires destroyed at least 60 homes Friday, burning across about 655 square miles around the state, the Texas Forest Service said. Some of the fires have been burning for a week or more, including three in West Texas that have charred a combined 400,000 acres, the equivalent of more than half of the state of Rhode Island.
Volunteer firefighter Gregory M. Simmons, 51, died while battling a 3,000-acre blaze Friday afternoon near Eastland, Mayor Mark Pipkin said. Simmons had been a firefighter for two decades, including 11 years in Eastland, the mayor said.
Simmons and other firefighters fled their truck as it was being overrun by flames, and Simmons fell in a ditch, where the fire caught him, said Justice of the Peace James King, who pronounced Simmons dead at the scene along a rural road.
The combination of powerful winds and low humidity Friday was rare for north central Texas, said Dennis Cavanaugh of the National Weather Service. Winds were expected to be around 10 mph Saturday after whipping in the 50 mph range a day earlier. Humidity readings were expected to remain low, possibly in the single digits, Cavanaugh said.
Roads reopened Saturday around Possum Kingdom Lake, allowing residents to assess damage in a popular recreation area where at least 30 homes burned, Deffibaugh said.
The blaze left a thick gray haze across the sky Friday as it burned about 20,000 acres around the lake. By nightfall, a deep red glow hovered on the horizon as thick billows of smoke were illuminated by the flames.
Officials closed the surrounding state park and evacuated campsites earlier Friday, fearing the fire would block off the only access roads to the wooded area.
"The fire, it's a bad one," Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spokesman Rob McCorkle said. "This is pretty unusual to have this many fires going across the state at the time."
Three large fires burning in Wichita County, about 150 miles northwest of Dallas near the Oklahoma border, had destroyed about 20 homes in the Iowa Park area. Eight more were lost in Wichita Falls, where folks in surrounding communities were being told to stay alert to the fast-changing situation.
"There's just a lot of hoping that nothing else happens," said Barry Levy, a Wichita Falls spokesman.
A military housing complex near Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls was evacuated for about two hours as the fire threatened to move in, but no buildings were damaged, base spokesman George Woodward said.
"It got close enough to scare a lot of people," Woodward said.
Evacuations also were ordered in small communities north of San Angelo and Andrews, along the Texas-New Mexico state line. Shelters were set up for people who had to leave their homes.
Strong winds are typical for spring, but this March was among the driest on record, Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Holly Huffman said.
"There's an overabundance of very dry vegetation and it serves as kindling," she said.
Associated Press writers Matt Curry, Linda Stewart Ball and Schuyler Dixon in Dallas and Juan Carlos Llorca in El Paso contributed to this report.
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