Wildfires Scorch Texas, Prompt Evacuations

Wind continued whipping across Texas on Tuesday after driving wildfires that charred hundreds of square miles and forced residents of this community of 1,500 people to evacuate.

Only three buildings had been destroyed across the state, but residents of Robert Lee were evacuated for the night as a precaution because of a blaze that had covered about 6 square miles. Robert Lee is about 65 miles southwest of Abilene.

About 100 to 150 people settled into the gymnasium of the Bronte School District, where cots were set up for them.

"They basically came with just themselves and their children," Superintendent Alan Richey said. Some brought their pets.

Fire officials waited for daylight Tuesday to assess the scope of the state's biggest wildfire, which had stretched across parts of three central Texas counties and could be as large as 781 square miles, or 500,000 acres, said David Abernathy, an incident commander with the Texas Forest Service.

At one point Monday, that blaze moved so quickly — stoked by 50 mph wind — that flames were consuming an area the size of "a football field every minute," Abernathy said.

Three firefighters were injured in a truck accident.

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.

"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."

Some fires were likely started by wind blowing down power lines, he said.

Some homes also were evacuated near the towns of Cottonwood and Mason, said Anne Jeffery, an information officer for Texas Forest Service. Robert Lee is about 65 miles southwest of Abilene.

About 200 homes were evacuated in Odessa because of a 7-square-mile wildfire, but residents were allowed back home by early evening, said Andrea Goodson, a city spokeswoman.

Elsewhere, a grass fire in southeastern New Mexico raced across about 81 square miles west of Hobbs before crews got a handle on the flames.

About 100 people were urged to evacuate but everyone was allowed to return Monday night, Hobbs police Capt. Donnie Graham said. Just before dusk, crews had contained about 95 percent of the fire and the wind that had fanned the flames had calmed, Graham said.

"We're working on some hot spots and flare ups and we'll probably be doing that until tomorrow," Graham said Monday evening.

Before Monday, Texas wildfires had burned about 156 square miles and destroyed about 60 homes and other structures in the past month. Two years ago, numerous outbreaks blackened about 3,515 square miles statewide and killed 20 people.