Hundreds of people were forced to flee from raging wildfires in Texas as low humidity and gusty winds fueled the blazes, officials said on Friday. The fires have also have been blamed for the death of a sheriff’s deputy.
Several wildfires merged to form what fire officials call a “complex” that was burning near Eastland, about 120 miles west of Dallas.
As of Friday morning, the fires had burned about 62.5 square miles, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.
Officials in Eastland County, Texas, reported the death of a sheriff’s deputy, Barbara Fenley, who they said was trying to save people from the fires.
Fenley died in the fire after driving off the road as she tried to reach an elderly individual, Eastland County Sheriff Jason Weger told KRBC News.
SPRING WEATHER FORECAST: Western megadrought to persist, worsen
About 18,000 people live in Eastland County, where the large fire was burning. About 475 homes were evacuated in the town of Gorman, but officials don’t yet know how many structures may have burned, said Matthew Ford, spokesman for the Texas A&M Forest Service.
A Baptist church in downtown Ranger, Texas, about 85 miles west of Fort Worth, was destroyed Thursday when flames engulfed the 103-year-old building. The police department and other historic buildings were also burned, Dallas TV station WFAA reported.
A nursing home in Rising Star was evacuated and residents were taken to a community center, Eastland County Today reported.
Mobile home park in Abilene evacuated Thursday
Abilene and the surrounding area was named by the Texas A&M Forest Service as a target for extremely critical fire conditions in areas along and west of the Interstate 35 corridor on Thursday.
An abundance of extremely dry dormant grasses and intensifying drought created the risk, the agency said.
Thursday afternoon and evening saw at least three fires spring up in the northern part of the city due to problems with power lines, aided by sustained winds as high as 41 mph and gusting to 56 mph in the late afternoon, according to the National Weather Service.
Not long thereafter, another fire broke out on the north and south sides of Highway 80 in west Abilene, requiring evacuations, including residents of a mobile home park.
Hazy in Houston
The fires caused hazy and smoky conditions hundreds of miles away, with the Houston Fire Department and the city’s Office of Emergency Management on Friday morning sending out automated phone messages alerting area residents to smoke and ash.
Contributing: Photojournalist Ronald W. Erdrich, Abilene Reporter-News from Cisco and Eastland, Texas; The Associated Press.
Laura Gutschke reported from Abilene, Texas. Doyle Rice reported from Silver Spring, Maryland.