ROBERT LEE, Texas – Firefighters across West and Central Texas continued to battle wildfires Tuesday that burned at least 200,000 acres, injured several people and forced the temporary evacuation of the 1,500 residents of Robert Lee, an official with the Texas Forest Service said.
Fire officials were waiting for daylight Tuesday to assess the scope of one massive wildfire stretching across Sterling, Reagan and Irion counties in Central Texas that could be as large as 500,000 acres, said David Abernathy, an incident commander with the forest service. Airplanes will fly over the fire during daylight Tuesday to obtain more accurate mapping data, he said.
At one point the blaze moved so quickly — fueled by 50 mph winds — that flames were consuming an area the size of "a football field every minute," Abernathy said.
Three firefighters were injured in Archer County when two fire trucks collided head on after one swerved around a car that pulled out into the road, Abernathy said. One of the firefighters was airlifted to an area hospital, an Archer County dispatcher said. He survived but his condition was unknown.
Abernathy said he was aware of at least two dozen separate fires across the state and expected there were "many, many more that we won't know about" until local fire departments report in.
At least 18 counties reported wildfires to state emergency management officials. There are 25 local disaster proclamations in effect.
Officials blamed strong winds, sudden shifts in the wind and dry air. Some fires were likely started with winds blowing down power lines, sparking grassfires that grew out of control, Abernathy said.
"We had so many fires that there is no possible way to have enough firefighting resources for that many fires," Abernathy said. "Texas had the same conditions that you might expect in Southern California with some of their Santa Ana winds. The right conditions came together. It's extremely rare for us to see that."
There have been no reported deaths and just three buildings destroyed.
"That's just remarkable," Abernathy said. "Firefighters saved countless homes around the state. We'll have to lay it out just to luck that some of these large acreage fires are in areas that just weren't populated."
About 100 to 150 evacuated Robert Lee residents were settling in Monday night at the gymnasium of the Bronte School District, where cots were set up for the evacuees. The evacuation order was lifted later that night, Abernathy said.
"They basically came with just themselves and their children," Superintendent Alan Richey said. Some brought their pets.
Bronte is about 12 miles from Robert Lee.
A fire of about 4,000 acres in Coke County caused the Robert Lee evacuation, said Anne Jeffery, an information officer for Texas Forest Service.
Fires across the state Monday included about 30,000 acres in Sterling County; about 7,000 acres in Archer County; about 3,520 acres in Callahan County; and about 500 acres in Mason County, Jeffery said.
Some homes were evacuated near the town of Cottonwood in Callahan County and near Mason in Mason County, Jeffrey said.
Earlier in the day, about 200 homes were evacuated in Odessa due to a wildfire. Those residents were allowed back home by early evening, said Andrea Goodson, a spokeswoman for the city of Odessa. The fire, which moved south of the communities, has burned between 4,500 and 5,000 acres, she said.
Firefighters were battling blazes in 40-50 mph winds throughout several counties, but mostly away from populated areas, said Midland Fire Chief Russ Conley.
"So far we've been fortunate," Conley said.
Strong winds and warm temperatures fueled the wildfires in mostly rural areas of West Texas as the fire danger was classified as "extremely critical" by the National Weather Service.
The wildfire warning was in effect because of forecasts calling for strong winds and low humidity in western and central Texas, ideal conditions for the spread of wildfires.
Before Monday, wildfires had burned about 100,000 acres and destroyed about 60 homes and other structures in the past month. Two years ago, numerous outbreaks scorched 2.25 million acres statewide and killed 20 people.