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Texas Wildfires Blamed in 4 Deaths

December 28, 2005

CROSS PLAINS, Texas (AP) _ Firefighters searched for missing people and hoped for cooler, calmer weather Wednesday after deadly wildfires raced across thousands of acres of grassland dried out by Texas’ worst drought in decades and destroyed dozens of homes.

The wind-driven fires were blamed for four deaths, the Texas Division of Emergency Management said Wednesday.

In addition to the deaths, at least three people were unaccounted for Wednesday in Cross Plains, a town of about 1,000 people, fire officials said.

More than 100 buildings, including 78 homes, were destroyed by Tuesday’s fires, the state emergency management agency said. That included about 25 homes in Cross Plains, local fire officials said.

Fires were still smoldering Wednesday in four Texas counties, the agency said.

One new fire was reported Wednesday in eastern Oklahoma, where five homes had been destroyed by flames.

Severe drought, wind gusting to 40 mph and temperatures reaching the low 80s set the stage for the fires, which authorities believe were mostly set by people ignoring fire bans and burning trash, shooting fireworks or tossing cigarettes on the crunchy, dry grass. A fallen power line apparently started one Oklahoma blaze.

Temperatures peaking in the 70s were likely Wednesday. ``The little cooler conditions will help, if the winds stay down.″ Norwood said.

However, the area still was extremely dry.

``We’re not completely out of the woods yet,″ Keith Ebel, a deputy Texas fire marshal, said on CBS’ ``The Early Show.″

``This is the driest that we know on record since 1959,″ he said. ``It’s extremely dry. We have lakes that have completely dried up that are normally 20, 30 feet deep.″

One new line of flames was reported early Wednesday in eastern Oklahoma’s Cherokee County. There were no immediate reports of damage.

Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Traci Weaver called the wildfires the state’s worst since February 1996, when blazes that covered 16,000 acres destroyed 141 structures around Poolville, about 40 miles northwest of Fort Worth.

An elderly woman was killed in Texas’ Cooke County, near the Oklahoma line, Weaver said. She apparently had fallen and broken her hip, she said.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry issued a disaster declaration Tuesday after more than 70 fires were reported in the northern and central parts of the state. Firefighters from surrounding states were called in to help.

``It’s like trying to stop a 30 mph car coming down the street,″ Ebel said.

At least 50 homes were destroyed in Texas, along with at least five homes and nearly two-dozen other buildings in Oklahoma.

Firefighters in Cross Plains couldn’t fight all the blazes at once.

``Houses are just burned down that nobody could ever get to,″ Dillard said. ``Instantly, there were 15 or 20 houses on fire at same time and no way to get around to all of them.″

Oklahoma’s biggest fire burned about 400 acres in a rural area near the town of Mustang, southwest of Oklahoma City.

``It just kept jumping. I’ve never seen anything like it,″ said Mustang resident Maria Vantour-Smith. She was able to help a neighbor remove a few antiques and other items from his home before it was gutted.

At least five firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation or heat exhaustion, two in Oklahoma and three in Texas, authorities said. Several people suffered smoke inhalation near Achille in southeastern Oklahoma.

In Oklahoma City, a child suffered minor burns on his hands when a shed caught fire. That blaze was apparently started by children playing with fireworks, Fire Department Maj. Brian Stanaland said.


Associated Press writers Matt Curry in Kennedale, Texas, Tim Talley in Mustang, Okla., Liz Austin in Austin and Paul J. Weber and Anabelle Garay in Dallas contributed to this report.

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