Grass Fires Leave Five Dead, Three Missing in Texas

Five people are dead and three others are missing as grass fires continue to roar across drought-stricken areas of Texas and Oklahoma, officials said Wednesday.

In Cross Plains, Texas, a fire official said a search was on for three people who were unaccounted for after 25 homes there were destroyed by fire Tuesday.

More than 120 buildings, including at least 90 homes, were destroyed in Texas and Oklahoma by Tuesday's fires. The Texas Division of Emergency Management agency said 13,000 acres had been burned.

Fires were still smoldering Wednesday in four Texas counties, the agency said. One new fire was reported Wednesday in an isolated area of eastern Oklahoma; it was later contained.

Patricia Cook said her home in Cross Plains was saved by her 18-year-old son, J.D., and a friend, who saw the flames approaching the house and ran to save it.

"The fire was literally nipping at their heels," she said. "He just picked up the hose and started watering things down."

The Cook home is on the same block as the First United Methodist Church, which was destroyed.

"We had a tornado here years ago and we thought that was devastating. This lasted for hours and hours," she said.

Severe drought, wind gusting to 40 mph and temperatures reaching the low 80s set the stage for the fires, which authorities believe were mostly set by people ignoring fire bans and burning trash, shooting fireworks or tossing cigarettes on the crunchy, dry grass. A fallen power line apparently started one Oklahoma blaze.

"If we have a situation where we are able to prove that someone intentionally started this, we will probably prosecute them to the full extent of the law," said Kennedale Mayor Jim Norwood.

Temperatures peaking in the 60s and 70s were likely Wednesday. "The little cooler conditions will help, if the winds stay down," Norwood said.

However, the area is unusually dry.

"This is the driest that we know on record since 1959," Keith Eel, a deputy Texas fire marshal, said in a TV interview. "It's extremely dry. We have lakes that have completely dried up that are normally 20, 30 feet deep."

Texas got only 21.5 inches of rain in the first 11 months of 2005, down from a normal statewide average of 26 inches. The National Weather Service said 2005 is the fifth-driest year on record for northern and central Texas, where most of the fires happened. Oklahoma has received about 24 inches of rain this year, about 12 inches less than normal.

Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Traci Weaver called the wildfires the state's worst since February 1996, when blazes that covered 16,000 acres destroyed 141 structures around Poolville, about 40 miles northwest of Fort Worth.

Firefighters in Cross Plains couldn't fight all the blazes at once.

"Instantly, there were 15 or 20 houses on fire at same time and no way to get around to all of them," said rancher Dean Dillard.

One of the deaths was a woman found dead in her home in Cross Plains, but no other details were available, Assistant Fire Chief Rick Caruth said. A second was a woman who apparently fell and broke her hip and couldn't get out of her home in Callisburg, near the Texas-Oklahoma line, before it was destroyed by the flames, firefighters said.

And fire officials said one person died in east-central Oklahoma.

Details on the other two deaths weren't immediately available.

At least 15 Texas firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation or heat exhaustion, plus two more in Oklahoma, 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, Fire Department Maj. Brian Stanaland said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.