CROSS PLAINS, Texas – Rancher Dean Dillard was able to save his 72-year-old mother's home from grass fires by soaking the land around it. But many of his neighbors weren't as lucky.
Wildfires that raced through Texas and Oklahoma Tuesday devoured scores of homes, including at least 25 in rural Cross Plains. The fires, fueled by gusty winds and a drought, were blamed for at least one death and a handful of injuries.
"It looked like we had been bombed in a big war, the whole city was on fire everywhere," said Dillard.
Early Wednesday, thick smoke still hung over the town, located about 150 miles southwest of Dallas. Roads remained blocked after the fires forced the town's 1,000 residents to evacuate.
Drought and windy conditions help set the stage for the fires, which authorities believe were mainly set by people ignoring fire bans and burning trash, shooting fireworks or tossing cigarettes on the crunchy, brown grass.
Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Traci Weaver called the wildfires the state's worst since February 1996, when 141 structures and 16,000 acres were destroyed around Poolville, about 40 miles northwest of Fort Worth.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry deployed state firefighters and issued a disaster declaration after at least 73 fires were reported burning in the northern and central parts of the state. Firefighters from at least three other states were called in to help.
"It's like trying to stop a 30-mph car coming down the street," Texas Deputy Fire Marshal Keith Ebel said. "The wind is the worst enemy right now."
In Cooke County, near the Texas-Oklahoma border, an elderly woman was killed, Weaver said. No details were available.
The flames were so bad in Cross Plains that firefighters couldn't fight all the blazes at once. Dillard, a former city councilman, spent the day fighting fires with neighbors.
"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."
In Oklahoma, the biggest fire burned at least 400 acres in a rural area near the town of Mustang, southwest of Oklahoma City.
After the flames passed, residents emerged and were "watering their yards and standing in their yards," said Harold Percival, who lives about a mile from the Mustang fire.
"It just kept jumping. I've never seen anything like it," said Hankins' friend, Maria Vantour-Smith. They were able to remove a few antiques and other items from the home before it was gutted.
At least two Oklahoma firefighters were being treated for smoke inhalation or heat exhaustion, authorities said. In Texas, at least three firefighters were hospitalized with smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion, authorities said.
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, Oklahoma City Fire Maj. Brian Stanaland said. In Texas, blazes were sparked the same way in Granbury and Kennedale, communities south of Forth Worth.
In some areas, power outages were reported after utility poles were burned.
Fire burned across Bryan County in southeastern Oklahoma. The most severe blaze destroyed at least three structures near Achille and resulted in an unknown number of injuries, mostly from smoke inhalation, said Tim Cooke, the county's emergency management director.
Smoke from other grass fires reduced visibility along Interstate 35, forcing officials to briefly close a stretch of the highway in southern Oklahoma near the Texas line.
The wind in Oklahoma was clocked at 25 to 35 mph, with gusts as high as 40 mph.
In Texas, Fort Worth Fire Department Lt. Kent Worley said crews had fought nine brush fires during the first half of the day alone. His department also helped battle a blaze in nearby Kennedale, where two apartment complexes were evacuated.
"It looked like the world was on fire," said Arlington Battalion Chief David Stapp, whose department joined others in fighting the blaze. "There were flames 30 to 40 feet high, just a wall of flames."
In Hood County, Texas, a fire near Canyon Creek forced at least 100 people to evacuate, said Chief Deputy Jerry Lind. He said several structures were on fire, and propane tanks had exploded.
Jane Hankins, whose home in Mustang, Okla., was charred, wept and hugged a friend as she watched orange flames leap from the roof of the house she and her husband shared for 13 years.
"We worked long and hard on this house," Hankins said. "But that's O.K. Nobody was hurt."