Fires sweeping across Texas; firefighter killed

GRAHAM, TX Strong winds and drought-stricken grasses and shrubs are fueling the fires that forced hundreds of evacuations, including an entire town, and destroyed at least 60 homes on Friday. Firefighters worked overnight as the blazes burned across about 655 sq. miles, according to the Texas Forest Service.

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.

Volunteer firefighter Gregory M. Simmons, 51, died while battling a 3,000-acre blaze Friday afternoon near Eastland, a town about 130 miles west of Dallas, Eastland Mayor Mark Pipkin said. Simmons had been a firefighter for two decades, including 11 years in Eastland, the mayor said.

"Apparently he was overcome by smoke, fell in a ditch and was consumed" by the fire, said Justice of the Peace James King, who pronounced Simmons dead at the scene along a rural road.

No other injuries have been reported.

A blaze destroyed about 30 homes and left a thick gray haze across the sky as it burned about 20,000 acres around Possum Kingdom Lake, a popular recreation spot about 120 miles west of Dallas. By nightfall, a deep red glow was hovering 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 that 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.

Wildfires near Eastland also prompted officials to evacuate the 1,200-resident town of Gorman, including the school and nursing home, said city clerk Jill Rainey. Evacuations also were ordered for about 200 homes in the Possum Kingdom area and some in small communities north of San Angelo and Andrews, along the Texas-New Mexico border. Shelters were set up for people who had to leave their homes.

Some of the fires have been raging for days, though high wind gusts on Friday sparked even more fires that raced across pastures and roadsides to consume areas the size of a football field in a minute.

Strong winds are typical for spring, but this March was the driest in Texas since 1895, said Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Holly Huffman.

In West Texas, a fire sparked by a welder's torch 10 days ago had grown to about 105,000 acres in Stonewall, King and Knox counties by Friday, while another 149,000-acre fire that began earlier this week continued raging in Kent, Stonewall and Fisher counties. A separate fire that started nearly a week ago has spread to 165,000 acres in Jeff Davis County, about 200 miles east of El Paso.

"There's an overabundance of very dry vegetation and it serves as kindling," Huffman said.

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