Stunned Texans Find Homes Destroyed by Wildfires

By Betsy Blaney
|  Tuesday, Mar 1, 2011  |  Updated 9:01 AM CDT
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Stunned Texans Return Home After Fires

AP

Fire fighters continue to add water to a burned garage Sunday, February 27, 2011, in Amarillo, Texas. About 20 homes have burned in several Panhandle subdivisions as wildfires plague parts of the Panhandle and South Plains of Texas. (AP Photo/The Amarillo Globe News, Michael Norris)

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As Regina Newby approached the kennel where her dogs had been staying while she was out of town, she realized that the building was burning, set ablaze by one of several wildfires that have roared through parts of Texas, destroying at least 75 homes, in recent days.

Firefighters and workers at the kennel just north of Amarillo rescued some of the animals, but had to set others free in their haste to flee the building.

Newby's dogs, Mocha and Ginger, both 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."

Stunned and weary residents of some of the Panhandle and West Texas communities hardest hit by Sunday's wildfires were allowed to return to their homes Monday after firefighters contained the blazes that scorched some 190 square miles in the state.

Shaken residents of rural Mesilla Park, a housing development north of the city, who spent Sunday night in a shelter in nearby Amarillo waited in their cars at a roadblock Monday until authorities gave them the all-clear to return home to survey the damage. The town lost 30 homes to the fire.

Scott Smith and his wife, Carla, said they had already been told that their double-wide trailer home of 20 years in Mesilla Park was destroyed in the blaze, which burned about 30,000 acres, or 46 square miles, in several communities around 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 contained the Panhandle and West Texas wildfires by Monday, after the winds died down. Early Tuesday, Texas Forest Service spokesman Lewis Kearney said some hotspots continued to burn in parts of West Texas but that reduced wind speed was making it easier for firefighters to bring the blazes under control.

Kearney said parts of South Texas remained at high risk of wildfires Tuesday because of the low humidity, hot temperatures and an increase in wind in the area.

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

Sunday's blazes forced the evacuation of the small town of Matador and destroyed 13 homes in Colorado City, Kearney said.

Palisades Mayor Tommy Medlin said about 25 homes were destroyed in his small town just south of Amarillo. Residents were expected to be allowed to return on Tuesday.

Another seven homes were lost in nearby Lake Tanglewood. Angie Coker, whose home was among those destroyed, cried Monday as she surveyed its charred remains and her melted Porsche in her driveway.

Kevin Knapp, of Lake Tanglewood, was among about a dozen people who took sanctuary at another shelter in Amarillo on Sunday. He said he turned on every sprinkler he could outside his home, but when his wife saw flames across the street, they fled -- grabbing computers they use for their online driver's education business that they salvaged from an office fire just weeks ago.

"It was raining soot," Kevin Knapp said. "I had to get my ski goggles on to be able to see."

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.

Associated Press writer Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth contributed to this report.

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