BORGER, Texas – Stiff winds pushed wildfires deeper into the parched Texas Panhandle on Wednesday, threatening six small towns and prompting authorities to urge 3,000 people to evacuate their homes.
State officials recommended that residents flee ahead of the flames, but local leaders had not made the evacuations mandatory.
"This is the worst-case scenario of what we hoped wouldn't happen," said Warren Bielenberg, a Texas Forest Service spokesman.
Firefighters were frustrated by winds that gusted up to 30 mph, some of the strongest since wildfires began racing across the plains northeast of Amarillo on Sunday.
"When fire is advancing at 40 mph, you can't put it out," Borger Fire Chief Gayland Darnell said. "It would be like trying to stop a tornado."
Fire crews got some relief with brief rain in the Borger and Pampa areas, along with overcast skies and higher humidity. But state officials said conditions remained critical because of the high winds.
There were 10 active fires Wednesday, and firefighters responded to more than 200 new blazes for a second consecutive day.
About 840,000 acres have burned since Sunday, and 11 people have been killed. An estimated 10,000 horses and cattle have also died in the flames.
As the fires advanced into the northeast corner of the Panhandle, state authorities urged people to leave the communities of Lipscomb, Higgins, Barton Corner, Booker, Darrouzett and Follett.
Lipscomb County Judge Willis Smith declined to order mandatory evacuations. "We are in its path if it crosses," he said. "But there's a lot of manpower."
Gov. Rick Perry said crews had made progress overnight battling some of the fires. "And even more firefighters and equipment are headed to the Panhandle to continue the fight," he said in a statement. The governor was scheduled to tour the area Thursday.
The Texas Forest Service warned Oklahoma officials about the possibility of the fires crossing the state line.
In their efforts to quell the wildfires, some fire departments used soapy water because it sticks to vegetation better and does not evaporate as quickly. Firefighters also have set back fires and used bulldozers to deprive advancing fires of fuel, while helicopters drop fire retardant and water on the flames.
Volunteer firefighter Sallie Adcock cringed when she saw yet another smoke plume heading skyward late Tuesday, indicating one more blaze had ignited despite efforts to clear grass and brush.
"It makes you sick," Adcock said. "We thought we were done, and you look over there and here we go again."
The charred bodies of four oilfield workers were found Tuesday near where they abandoned their car in a Roberts County ravine. On Sunday, four people died in a crash on a smoke-shrouded highway near Groom, and three more died trapped in homes near Borger.