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Evacuations Continue Amid Texas Wildfire Threat

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STONEHAM (AP) - Officials who evacuated 1,800 southeast Texas homes and businesses as wildfires approached were wary of allowing anyone to return too soon, fearing other blazes could develop amid the unpredictable winds and dry, tinderbox conditions.

Evacuations were expected to continue Tuesday and possibly longer depending on the weather, said Texas Forest Service spokesman Justice Jones. A Grimes County judge ordered the evacuations after the fire that burned 5,000 acres crossed containment lines.

Although the number of residents evacuated wasn’t immediately known, those within 56 sq. miles of the county were impacted. The fire was believed to have been sparked by a barbecue pit on Sunday and fueled by gusty winds and triple-digit temperatures that raked across the rural community northwest of Houston.

Jones said at least two people were injured and nearly 30 homes destroyed so officials did not want to take any chances. The fire occurred in a small but fairly populated area of the county, so it doesn’t take a big blaze to threaten a lot of homes, Jones said.

“We have hundreds of homes in the path of the fire and within the perimeter,” he said, explaining that they wanted to make sure they were “taken out of harm’s way.”

The American Red Cross set up a shelter capable of housing at least 300 people at Navasota High School, but residents had no takers Monday night, said Tim Kidwell, senior director for regional planning and response. Residents who came seeking information indicated they planned to spend the night elsewhere.

The Grimes County wildfire was just one of many firefighters were battling across the drought-plagued state, including 20 others that the Texas Forest Service said involved more than 76,000 acres and consumed at least 35 homes combined.

All but 30 of the state’s 254 counties had outdoor burn bans in place Monday, and more than 3 million acres have been torched since Texas’ fire season began in mid-November.

An 18,200-acre burning fire in Polk and Trinity counties, one of the biggest blazes ever in East Texas, was about 40 percent contained Monday. Two homes have been destroyed by the blaze, christened the “Bearing Fire” after officials said it was believed to have started when someone hauling a trailer pulled off a road and a hot wheel bearing ignited dry grass.

“We’re expecting winds to go down tomorrow and there’s a 50 percent chance of rain so we’re feeling pretty optimistic,” said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Kris Eriksen. “But don’t hold your breath. This is Texas.”

A 3,500-acre northern Jasper County fire blamed on hunters destroyed eight camp houses and left about 300 residents out of their homes, said Billy Ted Smith, emergency management coordinator for Jasper, Newton and Sabine counties. The fire was about 30 percent contained Monday.

“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.”

At least seven mobile homes were burned in a 150-acre Kendall County fire in central Texas that also led to mandatory evacuations of a subdivision and a park for recreational vehicles. Officials said a Huntsville-area blaze that blackened 1,000 acres and forced the evacuation of about 200 homes was considered only 5 percent contained Monday.

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

Karen Redman and her husband, Johney, have not been allowed back in their Grimes County home leaving to go to dinner on Father’s Day.

“We left all of our animals, our donkeys, our 13 schnauzers,” Karen Redman said Monday afternoon while sitting in her van outside a tent shelter. “We’re just wanting to find out if they’re OK. We couldn’t get in.”

Every route was blocked to their home at the end of a dead-end road, where they moved to three years ago after Hurricane Ike destroyed their Harris County home.

Grimes County Commissioner Pam Finke, who was busy carrying bottled water to firefighters at a relief station Monday night, called the blaze “devastating.”

“I’ve never seen it (fire) move this fast,” she said. “The winds are going crazy at times with gusts up to 35 mph.

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.

“We’re fighting these fires aggressively like we don’t anticipate rain helping us out and hoping for the best,” Jones said.

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

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