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Regional & National

Wind-driven fires kill woman, child in East Texas

September 5th, 2011 7:49 am by Staff Report

GLADEWATER, Texas (AP) — A longtime Texas sheriff says it was the fastest-moving fire he has ever seen. Six homes were toppled within minutes, including one trailer where a woman and her 18-month-old daughter were killed because they couldn't escape in time.

Authorities said the fires, including the one that killed the two people Sunday near the East Texas community of Gladewater, were propelled partly by the high winds caused by Tropical Storm Lee. Neighborhoods across eastern and central parts of the state were reporting widespread damage covering thousands of acres.

"The houses that were in its path on this particular roadway were taken out," Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano said. "... There were many other houses that the fire got right up to the porch."

The 20-year-old woman and her child were found dead near the bathroom of their trailer home just outside Gladewater, about 120 miles east of Dallas and 60 miles west of Shreveport, La. A male occupant of the home sustained minor burns but was able to escape, and he frantically searched for the others, Cerliano said.

Texas Forest Service officials estimated some 1,400 acres were burned in that area alone, destroying homes, barns and vehicles, and thousands of other acres were scorched in other parts of the state.

"We've completely depleted our resources," Melanie Spradling, a public information officer with the Texas Forestry Service, told the Tyler Morning Telegraph. "We're on every fire we can possibly handle and then some."

Cerliano said a church, numerous other homes and parts of a cemetery were also destroyed.

Authorities said the fires were lingering in part because a cold front was passing through and Tropical Storm Lee had whipped up winds, in places measured as high as 40 mph.

"With as hot and dry as the summer was, all that does is fuel the fires," National Weather Service Meteorologist Matt Hemingway said. "Right now, the chances for any rainfall from the tropical storm is basically nil."

The National Weather Service said South, Central and East Texas were all under "red flag" warnings for critical fire conditions until late Sunday night.

The wildfire threat became so dire in the Austin area of Central Texas that the Austin Fire Department issued a public appeal for any and all available firefighters in the area to report for duty.

Wildfires scorched more than 6,000 acres in Bastrop County, just southeast of Austin. Bastrop police spokesman Michal Hubbard told the Austin American-Statesman that hundreds of homes were evacuated in the vicinity of the county seat and several structures were lost.

A wildfire in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park destroyed two homes and damaged two others Sunday. Wildfires also prompted evacuations of other neighborhoods in Cedar Park and some in some suburbs.

In Corsicana, about 50 miles south of Dallas, a wildfire spread to and destroyed eight metal industrial shop buildings inside the city. Mayor Chuck McClanahan said fire crews were fighting to keep the flames from reaching wooden structures.

Navarro County Judge H.M. Davenport said three wildfires had spread to a total of 2,000 acres and prompted an evacuation of Navarro, a town of about 200 residents about eight miles southeast of Corsicana, and a sparsely settled rural area close to the nearby town of Mildred.

Ronnie Willis owns a pasture just east of the Corsicana fire. Embers from the industrial park fire burned his field, and Willis could only watch as the fires leaped across his pastures toward his two massive indoor arenas.

"My prayer is it doesn't burn up the buildings," he told the Corsicana Daily Sun. "The grass will grow back. If it doesn't hurt an animal or burn up the buildings, we can live through it. I just feel sorry for the people whose businesses are being destroyed."

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