Grimes County residents evacuating to escape wildfire

June 21, 2011 8:06:01 PM PDT
There are nearly two dozen fires burning in the state right now and that includes the huge blaze in Grimes County, where hundreds of homes and businesses have been evacuated. Authorities told initially said 6,100 acres have burned and the fire is now less than 30 percent contained, but more accurate mapping suggests about 5,280 acres have been burnged. We're told about 30 homes and structures have been destroyed.

And the winds are only getting worse and more unpredictable.

"One minute it will be heading northwest the other minute it'll heading northeast, and it's just constantly causing firefighters trouble with not only having to change their tactics but it's also jumped containment lines in numerous places," Texas Forest Service's Joe Kozlowski said.

Already 1,900 people have been evacuated and authorities say they may still have to evacuate more people tonight.

As we've reported on Eyewitness News, the fire apparently started in a BBQ pit. The Grimes Co. Sheriff says it was a local resident who accidentally started this fire and that the investigation into the blaze is not a criminal one.

"It's a sad situation, what happened, but people BBQ all the time," said Grimes Co. Sheriff Don Sowell.

Shifting winds and the lack of rain are the biggest problems here. A brief rain shower this morning was not significant and did nothing to help saturate the ground.

Around 36,000 square acres are in the danger zone and the fire is jumping a quarter of a mile at a time, which is a huge distance for firefighters.

Still there are some small victories for the 20 fire departments that are hard at work here.

"The good news is that we've saved a lot more homes than have been lost. We were able to make a stand last night on Highway 105 using our heavy air tanker to stop the fire from jumping the railroad tracks and the road. So we consider that a success, but we still have a long fight ahead of us," said Justice Jones of the Texas Forest Service.

Some local residents are waiting and watching.

"The sheriff told us when we came down that we needed to get out now. They wouldn't let us in last night, he kept saying no, then he finally let us back in so we could lock our house up," said evacuee Donna Viets.

She said she went back this morning to inspect their house and that it was fine and there was no smoke.

There are two reports of major injuries -- one person who was hurt by fire equipment and another who had a tree fall on him.

Authorities have scheduled a town hall meeting at 8pm Wednesday at St. Joseph Church on CR 304 to answer residents' questions.

Meanwhile, volunteers like Bobby Joe Green try to help in their own way.

"My house is good right now, so I'm just trying to help everybody else out," he said.

The Red Cross has set up shelters at Navasota High School and the First Baptist Church of Magnolia.

The SPCA of Houston is now operating two shelters for the animals of evacuees. The first shelter is at the Grimes Co. Auction Barn for domestic animals, while the other shelter is at the Grimes Co. Fairgrounds for livestock.

Evacuations expected to continue today

Officials who evacuated 1,800 southeast Texas homes and businesses as wildfires approached were wary of allowing anyone to return too soon, fearing other blazes could develop amid the unpredictable winds and dry, tinderbox conditions.

Evacuations were expected to continue Tuesday and possibly longer depending on the weather, said Texas Forest Service spokesman Justice Jones. A Grimes County judge ordered the evacuations after the fire that burned 5,000 acres crossed containment lines.

Although the number of residents evacuated wasn't immediately known, those within 56 sq. miles of the county were impacted. The fire was believed to have been sparked by a barbecue pit on Sunday and fueled by gusty winds and triple-digit temperatures that raked across the rural community northwest of Houston.

Jones said at least two people were injured and nearly 30 homes destroyed so officials did not want to take any chances. The fire occurred in a small but fairly populated area of the county, so it doesn't take a big blaze to threaten a lot of homes, Jones said.

"We have hundreds of homes in the path of the fire and within the perimeter," he said, explaining that they wanted to make sure they were "taken out of harm's way."

The American Red Cross set up a shelter capable of housing at least 300 people at Navasota High School, but residents had no takers Monday night, said Tim Kidwell, senior director for regional planning and response. Residents who came seeking information indicated they planned to spend the night elsewhere.

The Grimes County wildfire was just one of many firefighters were battling across the drought-plagued state, including 20 others that the Texas Forest Service said involved more than 76,000 acres and consumed at least 35 homes combined.

All but 30 of the state's 254 counties had outdoor burn bans in place Monday, and more than 3 million acres have been torched since Texas' fire season began in mid-November.

An 18,200-acre burning fire in Polk and Trinity counties, one of the biggest blazes ever in East Texas, was about 40 percent contained Monday. Two homes have been destroyed by the blaze, christened the "Bearing Fire" after officials said it was believed to have started when someone hauling a trailer pulled off a road and a hot wheel bearing ignited dry grass.

"We're expecting winds to go down tomorrow and there's a 50 percent chance of rain so we're feeling pretty optimistic," said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kris Eriksen. "But don't hold your breath. This is Texas."

A 3,500-acre northern Jasper County fire blamed on hunters destroyed eight camp houses and left about 300 residents out of their homes, said Billy Ted Smith, emergency management coordinator for Jasper, Newton and Sabine counties. The fire was about 30 percent contained Monday.

"It was caused by some local hunters target practicing, shooting old butane tanks for target practice," Smith said. "When they hit it, it would cause sparks, and those sparks evidently caused the fire."

At least seven mobile homes were burned in a 150-acre Kendall County fire in central Texas that also led to mandatory evacuations of a subdivision and a park for recreational vehicles. Officials said a Huntsville-area blaze that blackened 1,000 acres and forced the evacuation of about 200 homes was considered only 5 percent contained Monday.

And in the Texas Panhandle, where wildfires killed a firefighter earlier this year, three firefighters sustained minor injuries battling a blaze south of Amarillo.

Karen Redman and her husband, Johney, have not been allowed back in their Grimes County home leaving to go to dinner on Father's Day.

"We left all of our animals, our donkeys, our 13 schnauzers," Karen Redman said Monday afternoon while sitting in her van outside a tent shelter. "We're just wanting to find out if they're OK. We couldn't get in."

Every route was blocked to their home at the end of a dead-end road, where they moved to three years ago after Hurricane Ike destroyed their Harris County home.

Grimes County Commissioner Pam Finke, who was busy carrying bottled water to firefighters at a relief station Monday night, called the blaze "devastating."

"I've never seen it (fire) move this fast," she said. "The winds are going crazy at times with gusts up to 35 mph.

Scarce rain and low humidity have fueled conditions in southeast Texas, where heat is common but the ground in the heavily forested area usually remains moist. Brisk dry winds more associated with West Texas buffeted the area Monday.

"We're fighting these fires aggressively like we don't anticipate rain helping us out and hoping for the best," Jones said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report

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