Grass fires that already consumed thousands of acres of parched land in Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma kept popping up Saturday, needing only a spark from a passing train or an errantly tossed cigarette butt to ignite them.
Grass, trees and shrubs, crackling dry from lack of moisture, are consumed in seconds by the flames. The ensuing fires are pushed by gusty winds and roar along at speeds of 40 mph or more across vast stretches of open prairie.
“I’ve never seen them this fast,” said firefighter Pat Harbold, who spent much of this past week battling a 16,500-acre fire near Poolville, Texas.
“You get out of the way or they’ll run right over. You just try to contain them. It’s something out here on this prairie … you’ll have flames taller than your truck and embers flying up in front of you. There’s rabbits and other animals trying to get out of the way.”
Similar fires throughout Oklahoma destroyed 26 homes, injured at least 12 firefighters and left one volunteer firefighter dead of cardiac arrest near Okemah, about 70 miles east of Oklahoma City.
One of the largest fires charred tens of thousands of acres from Oklahoma’s rural Woods County across the state line into Kansas, burning some barns and outbuildings in its path as it raced down canyons and across dry rangeland.
At least three fires had sprung back to life Saturday in Medicine Lodge, Kan., about 25 miles from the state line. “It’s nothing but miles and miles of grassland and ravines,” said volunteer firefighter Richard Becker.
A grass fire in northeast Kansas forced the evacuation of about half the 900 residents of Auburn, a town near Topeka. Four homes and a fire truck were destroyed and two firefighters were injured.
The fire was about five miles long and three miles wide Saturday afternoon as it crept within a mile of the town.
The fire in Poolville, 35 miles west of Fort Worth, injured more than 50 people and destroyed more than 150 homes and other buildings.
Hundreds of fires continued to burn Saturday, including a 6,000-acre blaze in Stephens County, about 40 miles west of Poolville, and a 10,000-acre fire in Shackelford County in northwest Texas, and a 12,000-acre fire in Clay County. Those three fires were under control.
The grass fires - some 3,000 separate blazes since January - have consumed 158,000 acres, an area about three-quarters the size of Dallas.
Last year, 1,510 grass fires consumed about 18,500, said Jo Schweikhard Moss, of the State Division of Emergency Management.
Firefighters chase the flames in small, four-wheel drive “bush trucks” equipped with 500-gallon water tanks.
“You think you have it out and you look 100 yards past you and there’s another one started,” Harbold said. Fires that burned 15,000 acres of grassland near Fort Hood, about 50 miles southwest of Waco, were brought under control Friday night, said Sgt. Troy Rolan.
Roughly 1,200 soldiers, firefighters and civilian volunteers have been battling the fires, and helicopters dropped water.
North Texas has received only about 7 inches of rain since August. The normal rainfall for that period is about 17 inches, said Lori Bovitz, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. Prospects for rain are slight.