April 11, 2011 in Nation/World

Texas wildfires continue to rage

Forty homes burn; Amtrak sits 18 hours
Angela K. Brown Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

A home and vehicles destroyed by wildfire are shown in Fort Davis, Texas, on Sunday.
(Full-size photo)

FORT WORTH, Texas – Firefighters on Sunday continued battling out-of-control wildfires scorching nearly 400 square miles across the state, including a West Texas blaze that narrowly missed a historic frontier Army cavalry fort and one of the world’s leading astronomical research facilities.

A fast-moving wildfire had spread to more than 60,000 acres Sunday in Jeff Davis County and destroyed about 40 homes in Fort Davis before it raged north and east. The blaze that started Saturday night in Presidio County missed the McDonald Observatory, which instead was used as an evacuation shelter, said assistant director Anita Johnson.

The fire also missed Fort Davis National Historic Site, a U.S. Army cavalry fort built in 1854 to protect a mail route from San Antonio to El Paso and then reopened after the Civil War to protect freight wagons, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Bob Dillard, editor of the weekly Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch, said firefighters spent Saturday evening pouring water on the town’s bank and other downtown businesses, while residents toiled to save their homes in the town 200 miles southeast of El Paso.

But by early Sunday after the fire took down electricity, the water shut off and the town’s 1,100 residents evacuated, Dillard said.

About 162 Amtrak passengers and 11 crew members were stranded for 18 hours after flames spread across train tracks and burned a railroad bridge. The train finally started moving Sunday morning after work was done on the bridge.

“We could see the fire from a distance, and it was pretty bad,” Aurelia Alvarado, 65, who was on the train from San Antonio to California, told the San Antonio Express-News. “People are a little irate, and it’s just a bad situation.”

FEMA was expected to assist volunteer and other fire departments from across Texas and two dozen other states, said Alan Craft, a Texas Forest Service spokesman.

Sunday’s hot, windy weather and low humidity made for dangerous conditions, Craft said. Air tankers usually used to douse such massive fires could not be flown because of gusts of 40 to 50 mph, Craft said.

The fire was started Wednesday by a welder’s torch near Swenson, about 175 miles west of Fort Worth.

Also in West Texas, firefighters continued battling an out-of-control 16,000-acre fire in Midland County where 34 homes were destroyed, Craft said.

In the Panhandle, a 60,000-acre blaze in Potter and Moore counties was threatening the towns of Dumas and Sunray, north of Amarillo, but was not spreading Sunday evening.

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