Wind fuels destructive wildfires across Texas

AMARILLO, Texas — Stunned and weary residents of a Texas Panhandle town were allowed to return to what was left of homes on Monday, a day after fleeing one of several wind-driven wildfires that have scorched about 190 square miles.

Residents of rural Mesilla Park who spent Sunday night in a shelter in nearby Amarillo waited in their cars at a roadblock until authorities gave them the all-clear to return home to survey the damage.

Scott Smith and his wife, Carla, said they were told their mobile home was destroyed in the blaze, which started Sunday and burned about 30,000 acres, or 46 square miles, north of Amarillo.

"We had just enough time to get out," said Carla Smith, 59. "My husband's got cancer, and we got away with his medicine."

Her husband said the flames moved "like a blowtorch" across the fields.

Firefighters battled blazes in the Panhandle and West Texas overnight and had contained them by Monday, authorities said. But crews were preparing for new wildfires Monday in the central and southern parts of the state — including and around Austin, San Antonio and Houston — because of the low humidity, warm temperatures and very dry conditions, said Texas Forest Service spokesman Lewis Kearney.

Authorities have attributed one death and one injury to the fires. A 5-year-old girl was killed in a car crash Sunday on a smoke-filled highway near Midland, and a volunteer firefighter was injured in Eastland County.

The fire near Amarillo was ignited by a spark from a metal grinder, Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas said. Austin Lynn Stephens, 52, who was not supposed to be in the field where he was cutting pipe, was arrested on a criminal trespassing charge, Thomas said.

Sunday's blazes were aided by 70 mph wind gusts. But weaker winds Monday allowed crews to contain the fires, including a 40,000-acre fire that forced the evacuation of the small town of Matador and a 7,000-acre fire that destroyed 13 homes in Colorado City, Kearney said.

Regina Newby, of Amarillo, said she returned home from an out-of-town trip to learn that the kennel where she boarded her two dogs had caught fire. Kennel workers and firefighters rescued about three dozen animals but had to set others free in their haste to flee the blaze, authorities said.

Mocha, her small mixed-breed dog, died in the blaze, and the kennel told her Monday that her yellow Labrador, Ginger, which had been set free, also died.

"I know a lot of people lost a lot," Newby said, referring to homes and other property. "It's a small thing (to lose pets), but it's devastating to us."

Palisades Mayor Tommy Medlin said about 25 homes were destroyed in his small town just south of Amarillo. Residents haven't been allowed to return, but were expected to be allowed back today.

Seven homes were destroyed in Lake Tanglewood, another community near Amarillo. Angie Coker, whose home was among those destroyed, cried Monday as she surveyed its charred remains and her melted Porsche in her driveway.