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Firefighters Battling 20 Wildfires Across Texas

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STONEHAM (AP) - Karen Redman and her husband, Johney, haven’t been allowed back in their home since they went to dinner on Father’s Day, unaware that while they were gone wind-swept wildfires fed by triple-digit heat were knocking on their door in southeast Texas.

Firefighters across the drought-plagued state worked Monday to contain multiple wildfires, including 20 battled by Texas Forest Service crews that involved more than 76,000 acres and consumed some 35 homes and 20 outbuildings. All but 30 of the state’s 254 counties had outdoor burn bans in place.

“We left all of our animals, our donkeys, our 13 schnauzers,” Karen Redman said, sitting Monday in her van outside a tent shelter set up for Grimes County people out of their homes because of a wildfire that erupted in the southeast Texas county about 50 miles northwest of Houston. “We’re just wanting to find out if they’re OK. We couldn’t get in.”

They tried different routes to get to their home at the end of a dead-end road, where they moved to three years ago after Hurricane Ike destroyed their place in Harris County, closer to Houston.

Each way was blocked.

“You could see the flames up over the trees,” Johney Redman said.

Dozens of homes have been destroyed, and hundreds like the Redmans have been evacuated. Redman said he’s been told by a neighbor that their place Monday appeared to be OK.

“There’s a lot of folks worse than we are,” he said. “All I know is the good Lord said he wouldn’t put more on us than we could bear.”

More than 3 million acres have been torched since the state’s fire season began in mid-November.

“We’re trying to hold the lines,” Lexi Maxwell, a forest service spokeswoman, said outside a staging area in Stoneham in Grimes County, where at least 4,000 acres were torched in a blaze that began Sunday. “If we lose that, we could have additional evacuations.”

A cloud of smoke rose over a tree line behind her and the smell of burning wood and brush was evident. The whine of sirens occasionally broke through the wind noise.

She said the blaze, believed to have started in a barbecue pit, was about 25 percent contained.

Asked if the fire could result in criminal charges if the barbecue was being used in an area where outdoor fires were banned, Maxwell replied: “That’s a good question.”

Scarce rain and low humidity have fueled conditions in southeast Texas, where heat is common but the ground in the heavily forested area usually remains moist. Brisk dry winds more associated with West Texas buffeted the area Monday. Maxwell said sustained winds of 20 mph with gusts to 40 mph would make firefighting tough.

Maxwell said the strong winds push the fire and “make the direction of the fire shift.”

Johney Redman said one neighbor had been to trying to cut fire lines with a backhoe.

“He said that wind would shift in so many directions, the next thing you know, he looked behind, the fire was behind him,” Redman said. “He finally called his boys out.”

Maxwell said the drought was believed the worst in the area since 1917.

“Things are critically dry,” she said.

One injury was reported in the Grimes County fire when a civilian got trapped between two pieces of fire equipment.

“He was where he shouldn’t have been,” Maxwell said, urging non-firefighters to stay out.

Other parts of East Texas were experiencing similar fire outbreaks.

About 300 residents of northern Jasper County were out of their homes after a wildfire blamed on hunters broke out in the area, said Billy Ted Smith, emergency management coordinator for Jasper, Newton and Sabine counties. The fire was about 30 percent contained Monday. Eight camp houses have been destroyed in the 3,500-acre fire.

“It was caused by some local hunters target practicing, shooting old butane tanks for target practice,” Smith said. “When they hit it, it would cause sparks, and those sparks evidently caused the fire,”

The Texas Department of Transportation said no major highways were closed Monday due to wildfires. Parts of Interstate 35 East in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and I-45 north of Huntsville between Houston and Dallas were shut on Sunday. The Huntsville-area blaze blackened 1,000 acres and forced evacuation of 200 homes.

The Huntsville-area fire was 5 percent contained with flames reported in the tops of trees Monday.

In Polk and Trinity County, a 14,000-acre fire, one of the biggest ever in East Texas, was listed as 40 percent contained. Only two homes were destroyed by the blaze christened the “Bearing Fire” and believed to have started when someone hauling a trailer pulled off a road and a hot wheel bearing ignited some dry grass.

In Central Texas, at least seven mobile homes were burned in a 150-acre Kendall County fire that also led to mandatory evacuations of a subdivision and a park for recreation vehicles.

In the Texas Panhandle, where wildfires killed a firefighter earlier this year, three firefighters sustained minor injuries battling a blaze south of Amarillo.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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