Wildfires have spread across about 1.6 million acres in drought-stricken Texas, including a massive fire in North Texas that is still burning out of control.
Four wildfires around and south of Possum Kingdom Reservoir have burned about 150,000 acres as of Tuesday and destroyed as many as 50 homes and three churches.
The Possum Kingdom fire is the fifth of at least 100,000 acres around Texas reported in the past two weeks. Most of the state is in extreme drought, and wildfires in the past week alone have burned more than 1,000 square miles of parched Texas ranchland -- an area that combined would be the size of Rhode Island.
The weather is expected to complicate matters in North Texas on Tuesday, with temperatures forecast in the mid-90s and wind gusts of up to 35 mph. There is a chance of evening thunderstorms.
"Gusty winds, it's going to make any fire suppression efforts problematic," Webb said Tuesday. "The public just needs to be mindful that any use of outdoor fire should not be considered."
On Monday, flames touched off a storage building filled with fireworks, said Palo Pinto County Judge David Nicklas. No injuries were reported.
The Texas Forest Service said the four fires, which have been dubbed the "Possum Kingdom Complex," are burning in close proximity to each other, and some have burned together. The PK Complex is only 25 percent contained, the forest service said Monday night.
The heat from the flames grew so intense Monday that it sent cinders high into the atmosphere, where they became icy and fell in a process called "ice-capping," DPS Trooper Gary Rozzell said.
"They tell me it's like a roof falling in," he said.
Two hundred firefighters from 20 departments are battling the PK Complex.
Earlier Monday, a Type 1 Incident Management Response was ordered for the area. That means a federally or state certified team with the most robust training will oversee the response from this point forward.
Members of the First Baptist Church of Possum Kingdom, which burned to the ground, said they have insurance and will rebuild.
"It's pretty disastrous," a church member said. "And there were some houses pretty close to us that it didn't burn, so it's picky what it gets and what it doesn't get."
Inside the Southwest Hills Community Church, which is being used as an evacuation shelter, residents waited, and American Red Cross volunteers brought water and other provisions.
"They are grateful to have a place to go," said Greg Hill, the church's pastor. "They're wondering the state of their homes. The worst part is waiting. Information has been slow. People are being taken care of. They have all the comforts of home without being home, but their minds are on their homes."
"The community is really thrown together, coming together," said Palo Pinto County Commissioner Louis Ragle. "There are people from all over the state and other states here. We're amazed how much help we're getting, and we appreciate it."
One of the driest spells in Texas history has left most of the state in extreme drought, and wildfires in various parts of the state have burned more than 1,000 square miles of land in the past week -- an area that together would equal the size of Rhode Island.
"It's so dry statewide, it's just amazing," Texas Forest Service spokesman Marq Webb said.
Apparent Wildfire Sightseers Killed in Plane Crash
A federal official said two people who apparently wanted to see a West Texas wildfire from the air were killed when their single-engine biplane crashed.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Lynn Lunsford said the wreckage was found Monday east of San Angelo.
He said witnesses told investigators the two-seat Christen Eagle took off from Mathis Field/San Angelo Municipal Airport on Sunday afternoon.
The witnesses told investigators that the two people on board indicated they wanted to go on an apparent sightseeing trip over one of the state's weekend wildfires. Lunsford said no flight plan was filed, but none was required.
Lunsford said both individuals on board were believed to be in the Air Force, but were not flying in any official capacity.
The plane was registered to a North Dakota address. A woman who answered the phone at listing there said a family member "was involved" in the crash but had no further details.
The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.
Austin Fire Contained; Homeless Man Charged
A wildfire in Austin believed to have been sparked by a homeless man's campfire burned 100 acres and damaged at least 18 homes -- numbers fire officials expected would increase once they could survey the destruction on Monday.
Austin Fire Department spokesman Chayer Smith said he expected the damage estimates to move "substantially upward" once firefighters went through the affected area.
Authorities believe a homeless man, Michael Bernard Weathers, started the fire by lighting a campfire to cook amid strong winds and tinder-dry conditions that have left firefighters battling a spate of wildfires threatening communities across Texas. Weathers was charged with reckless endangerment and was being held on $50,000 bond.
About 200 homes were evacuated, but many evacuees were allowed to return home late Sunday. Two streets remained closed to traffic and residents on Monday, Smith said.
Lindsey Senn, 22, fled her house after hearing neighbors banging on doors and shouting warnings. She said she looked out her door, saw smoke everywhere, grabbed her pets and left.
"Am I going to come home to a house? ... A lot of thoughts are going through my head right now," Senn said.
Although Smith said the Austin fire was contained, Texas forestry officials said the threat of new wildfires remained high in parched West and northwest Texas on Monday.
In the Austin fire, two C-130 aircraft made several flyovers, dumping fire retardant over the fire. In the evacuated neighborhood, many residents had left sprinklers running in hopes of avoiding fire damage.
Help from Wyoming
Crews fighting wildfires in Texas are going to get some help from the Wyoming Air National Guard.
Thirteen guard members left Wyoming on Monday morning on a firefighting airplane that can carry up to 3,000 gallons of fire retardant.
The unit is one of four in the country to have the latest the U.S. Forest Service's Modular Airborne Firefighting System -- or MAFFS 2.
The system fits inside a C-130 transport plane and can drop slurry out of the side paratrooper door. Older firefighting planes drop slurry out of the back of the plane, which can cause safety problems for the crew because it makes it impossible to keep the cabin pressurized.
This will be the first mission for the Wyoming plane.
The crew is expected to start dropping slurry on Tuesday.
Texas Parks Firefighters Minimize Damage to State Parks in North, West Texas
Below is a news release from Texas Parks and Wildlife
A strike team, assisted by Texas State Park firefighters, battled wildfires most of the weekend, managing to protect park facilities and two residential communities near Possum Kingdom Lake adjacent to the park, which is located about 70 miles west of Fort Worth in Palo Pinto County. Agencies fighting the fire included TPWD, Texas Forest Service and U.S. Forest Service firefighters, assisted by Smokey Bear Hotshots and National Guard Blackhawk helicopters.
As the fire raced through the park shortly after 2 p.m. Sunday, non-essential personnel boarded boats at the park boat ramp and retreated to the safety of 20,000-acre Possum Kingdom Lake, according to Jeff Sparks, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s state parks wildland fire program manager. The fire front moved past the park, but Sparks says firefighters remain on the scene mopping up and monitoring the situation due to the possibility of a re-ignition in thick juniper canopies.
The PK West Fire that hit Possum Kingdom State Park at one point had threatened 200 homes and destroyed 31 residences near the lake. By Sunday afternoon, the Texas Forest Service reported the PK West Fire in Stephens County had burned into Palo Pinto County’s Hohertz Fire and remained uncontained. It is one of dozens of wildfires affecting more than a million acres across Texas. As a result, Gov. Rick Perry this morning asked for a federal disaster declaration for Texas.
Last week, the Rockhouse Fire in the Davis Mountains of West Texas burned 675 acres within Davis Mountains State Park. Only minimal damage to park structures was reported. Historic Indian Lodge escaped damage. The state park remains a base of operation for hundreds of firefighters battling the Rockhouse Fire that has consumed 187,000 acres in Presidio and Jeff Davis Counties. It was reported Sunday as being 70 percent contained.
Two other Texas state parks being threatened by wildfires – San Angelo State Park and Lake Arrowhead State Park near Wichita Falls – so far, have stayed out of harm’s way.
With more than 80 percent of the Wichita County Complex Fire contained as of Saturday, it appeared Lake Arrowhead State Park was safe from any fire threat, although firefighters were setting up to protect Sheppard Air Force Base.
San Angelo State Park, however, remains under threat as the Wildcat Fire had quadrupled in size over the weekend to more than 125,000 acres and was only 10 percent contained. San Angelo State Park firefighters were called to assist with the fire approximately 15 miles northwest of the state park.
Texas wildfire danger remains extreme due to persistent drought and windy conditions. On Saturday, the Texas Forest Services responded to 28 new fires burning almost 15,000 acres. Burn bans are in effect in 195 Texas counties.
TFS reminds everyone to:
- Obey outdoor burn bans. Don’t burn trash or debris when conditions are dry or windy.
- Keep lawn mowers and agricultural equipment in proper working condition and avoid rocks and other materials which might cause a spark.
- To report suspicious activities, call the Arson Hotline at (888) 501-3850.
- Humans cause more than 90 percent of all wildfires. Do not weld or cut without a spotter, a water source and a shovel.
NBC DFW's Scott Gordon and Associated Press writers Terry Wallace and Diana Heidgerd contributed to this report.