Rain brings wildfire relief

<div class="meta image-caption"><div class="origin-logo origin-image none"><span>none</span></div><span class="caption-text">A unidentified person, center, walks by as a Stonbeburg volunteer fire fighter, left rear, sprays down an adjacent structure as the main structure on a farm burns down in Montague County near Stoneburg, Texas, Friday, April 10, 2009. Nearly 1000 acres burned killing at least three during Thursday&#39;s wildfires that swept through the area. &#40;AP Photo&#47;Tony Gutierrez&#41;</span></div>
April 12, 2009 4:46:13 PM PDT
In a white-clapboard church spared by wildfires that ravaged this tiny rural community last week, a pastor offered words of hope to his congregation on Easter Sunday. PHOTOS: See images from the fires and destruction left behind

"Out of the destruction comes something good," the Rev. Larry Kennedy told about 40 people, including some children in pink and green Easter dresses, at Stoneburg Baptist Church. "It's devastating to see, but hope springs eternal."

Stoneburg was among the hardest hit areas of Montague County when eight fires sprang up Thursday and, fueled by high winds, quickly engulfed 75,000 acres of parched pastures and up to 100 homes. Three people died and two were injured in the county near the Oklahoma border.

As the fire raced through Stoneburg, it jumped across the street onto the Baptist church lawn, but firefighters put out the flames and saved the building built in the 1940s. The odor of burned debris lingered in the air Sunday from the blackened fields and heaps of ashes and charred cars in town.

"It's hard to see," said church member Marilyn Rater, wiping away tears as she looked across the street at the debris that had been her childhood home, "but it could have been worse." The couple who lived there had escaped unharmed.

The blazes were finally contained Sunday after early morning rainfall, said Montague County Sheriff Paul Cunningham.

Because the storms drenched most of North Texas, firefighters were close to containing several large blazes that have burned for days -- including a 27,700-acre fire in Young, 20,000-acre fire in Archer, 18,300-acre fire in Eastland and 16,000-acre fire in Shackelford counties, Texas Forest Service officials said.

Wildfires have burned more than 172,000 acres across the state the past several days.

"The rainfall is a tremendous relief for us," said David Abernathy, a Texas Forest Service operations section chief. "Mother Nature created the problem, and Mother Nature helped put it out."

The rain also allows weary firefighters, many who traveled long distances to help other communities, to rest or return home, he said.

On Sunday some attended a brief Easter prayer service in the Emergency Operations Center in Montague led by chaplains with Victim Relief Ministries, a Dallas-based nondenominational group that provides support to crime and disaster victims.

The group's counselors spent most of their time the past few days giving fire victims water and information about services -- and also listening to their stories.

"Where would Jesus be on Easter? With people that are hurting," said Pat Thorpe, a deputy commander for victim relief.

The news wasn't all good on Sunday, however. Firefighters in Jeff Davis County in West Texas were battling a 2,000-acre fire in the Davis Mountains, started Saturday night by a lightning strike, and a 100-acre fire in Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley that threatened several homes, Abernathy said.

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