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Fires Break out in Galveston, Houston

Wind from Hurricane Rita whipped up dramatic fires in this city's historic Strand District (search) and parts of Houston, sending out swirls of sparkling embers even as rain poured down in sheets.

One building was nearly destroyed in Galveston (search); two others appeared heavily damaged. A burning electric pole was lying on one of the buildings.

"It was like a war zone, shooting fire across the street," Fire Chief Michael Varela said early Saturday.

No injuries were immediately reported in either city, which were virtual ghost towns because most residents had heeded calls to evacuate. Rita made landfall more than 100 miles away early Saturday along the Texas-Louisiana line.

One of the buildings that caught fire in Galveston was built in 1905, five years after the hurricane that destroyed most of this island city and killed at least 6,000 people. The damaged buildings were a bail bonds company, a Victorian-era home, and Eagle Lodge, a former fraternal club that's now an art gallery.

Varela said one person escaped the fire, but he didn't know the person's identity or condition. Officials at the University of Texas Medical Branch (search) in Galveston did not respond to requests for information about the person who escaped.

The Strand District includes historic buildings, night clubs and shops. It is the site of a massive Mardi Gras (search) celebration and an annual Charles Dickens (search) festival.

Several fires also were burning in and around Houston, including an apartment complex. In Pasadena, south of Houston, a Dollar General store was nearly engulfed in flames, Mike Baird of the Pasadena Police Department told KTRK-TV in Houston.

Despite the fires, officials were relieved that Rita spared the flood-prone cities a direct hit. Galveston initially had been at the center of forecasters' fears as Rita churned in the Gulf of Mexico. Authorities worried a high storm surge could overwhelm seawalls and submerge the island city.

"It looks like the Houston and Galveston area has really lucked out," said Max Mayfield, director of the hurricane center.