RINGGOLD, Texas – Authorities went house to house in a search for victims in burned-out towns Monday as firefighters in Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma battled grass fires across the drought-stricken region.
Since Tuesday, fires have charred thousands of acres of grassland and farmland and destroyed more than 250 structures in the three states. Four deaths were reported last week in Texas and Oklahoma.
One of the weekend blazes destroyed most of this ranch-and-cattle town of some 100 people near the Oklahoma line, burning about 50 homes and 40,000 acres as wind swept the fire 13 miles from Ringgold to Nocona.
"It didn't take 30 minutes," Carol Ezzell said of the blaze's run through town, destroying all but seven buildings on Main Street, including the post office.
She said the wind caused little fire tornadoes. "It was just turning, and every time it would make a loop it would just leap" and begin burning somewhere new, she said.
Everyone had been accounted for in Ringgold, but crews searched from house to house for potential casualties in other fire-blackened towns, including Kokomo and Cross Plains, where more than 90 homes and a church were destroyed last week.
The weather service said conditions could worsen Tuesday, with low humidity and above-normal temperatures in the 70s in a region experiencing one of its worst droughts in 50 years. Forecasters also predicted high winds, which make fighting the fires from the air more difficult.
"We are preparing statewide for an intense response tomorrow, particularly from the ground," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said.
Computer models Monday showed no rain in the foreseeable future, said Jesse Moore, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Fort Worth. He said the region's last appreciable rain was about a quarter-inch on Dec. 20. Oklahoma is more than a foot behind its normal rainfall of about 36 inches for this time of year.
Weary firefighters remained on the job Monday trying to contain several of the 20 fires that broke out the day before in Texas, including one inEastland County, about 125 miles west of Dallas, that stretched for 25 miles. Firefighters said they were close to containing the fire but were concerned about an expected wind shift.
"Yesterday was a tough day in Texas," said Perry, who was in Nocona on Monday to survey the damaged area. "We had over 50,000 acres of land burned."
Since Nov. 1, Oklahoma wildfires have covered more than 285,000 acres and destroyed 200 buildings, said Michelle Finch, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department's forestry division.
"This has been an unprecedented year for fires," Finch said. Fire season in Oklahoma usually begins around Feb. 15 and lasts until April 15, but this past year the fires began in June and have gotten progressively worse, Finch said.
Crews in southeastern New Mexico were helped by calmer weather Monday as they mopped up four fires that had blackened more than 80,000 acres of grassland and burned 11 houses near Hobbs since Sunday.
The flames forced the evacuation of 200 to 300 people on the city's fringe — including about 170 from two Hobbs nursing homes. All but about 50 had returned home by midday Monday, authorities said.
Brothers Chris and Kelly Pfeiffer used garden hoses, shovels, rakes and their feet to save four homes in their rural neighborhood near Hobbs.
"We were spraying down the neighbor's house with water and every time you hit it with a stream of water, steam would come off," Chris Pfeiffer said. "It was like hitting a frying pan with water."