Homeless Man Charged With Starting Destructive Texas Wildfires

Wildfires sweeping across hundreds of thousands of acres in parched Texas killed a firefighter, forced hundreds of evacuations -- including an entire town -- and destroyed dozens of homes on Friday, officials said.

A homeless man is charged with building a campfire that destroyed at least eight homes in Austin and forced hundreds of evacuations.

Chayer Smith, a spokesman with the Austin Fire Department, says the suspect is in custody late Sunday for reckless endangerment. His bond is set at $50,000. Smith would not release the man's name.

The fire, which started Sunday afternoon, was mostly contained at 100 acres after two C-130s doused the area with fire retardant. About 200 homes were evacuated, though Smith says authorities were letting some residents return.

Strong winds were fueling fires that spanned about 655 square miles, according to the Texas Forest Service. Some of the fires have been burning for a week or more, including three in West Texas that have charred a combined 400,000 acres.

Volunteer firefighter Gregory M. Simmons, 51, died while battling a 3,000-acre blaze Friday afternoon near Eastland, a town about 130 miles west of Dallas, Mayor Mark Pipkin said. Simmons had been a firefighter for two decades, including 11 years with Eastland's fire department, the mayor said.

"Apparently he was overcome by smoke, fell in a ditch and was consumed" by the fire, said Justice of the Peace James King, who pronounced Simmons dead at the scene along a rural road

No other injuries have been reported.

A blaze destroyed about 30 homes and left a thick gray haze across the sky as it burned about 20,000 acres around Possum Kingdom Lake, a popular recreation spot about 120 miles west of Dallas. Officials closed the surrounding state park and evacuated campsites, fearing that the fire would block off the only access roads to the wooded area.

"The fire, it's a bad one," Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spokesman Rob McCorkle said. "This is pretty unusual to have this many fires going across the state at the time."

Three large fires burning in Wichita County, about 150 miles northwest of Dallas near the Oklahoma border, had destroyed about 30 homes. Wildfires also prompted officials to evacuate Gorman, a city of about 1,200 residents.

"The school, the nursing home and the whole city has been evacuated," Gorman City Clerk Jill Rainey said.

Evacuations also were ordered for about 200 homes in the Possum Kingdom area and some in small communities north of San Angelo and Andrews, along the Texas-New Mexico border. Shelters were set up for people who had to leave their homes.

A military housing complex near Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls was evacuated for about two hours as the fire threatened to move in, but no buildings were damaged, base spokesman George Woodward said.

"It got close enough to scare a lot of people," Woodward said.

Some of the fires have been raging for days, though winds on Friday helped flames race across pastures and roadsides to consume areas the size of a football field in a minute.
Strong winds are typical for spring, but this March was the driest in Texas since 1895, said Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Holly Huffman.

In West Texas, a fire that started by a 10 days ago had grown to about 105,000 acres in Stonewall, King and Knox counties by Friday, while another 149,000-acre fire that began earlier this week continued raging in Kent, Stonewall and Fisher counties. A separate fire in the area that started nearly a week ago has spread to 165,000 acres in Jeff Davis County, about 200 miles east of El Paso.

"There's an overabundance of very dry vegetation and it serves as kindling," Huffman said.
McCorkle said strong winds were increasing the chance that the fire near Possum Kingdom State Park could close off the only roads accessing the area, so county officials asked that the park be closed.

"This being a weekend, it would probably be pretty full," McCorkle said. "They wanted to get everybody out."