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Fires burn Texas from 'stem to stern'

Ranchers flung open gates in hopes their livestock could escape fast-moving flames. One family watched in horror as two of their horses caught fire and galloped away. Homes, barns, oil field pump jacks and thousands of acres of rangeland are now blackened.

Such were the scenes in drought-plagued west Texas, where the mammoth Rock House fire has raged for two weeks, part of a complex of more than a dozen fires stretching across a swath cut by the Pecos River.

No part of Texas has been spared. There are crown fires in the eastern Pine woodlands; fires around Dallas, Austin and Lubbock; and large fire complexes in the Panhandle and the Big Bend region of southwest Texas. The unprecedented blazes, which have scorched more than 3,000 square miles, have been driven by fierce winds, bringing much of the nation's professional firefighting resources pouring into Texas.

The state, said Texas Forest Fire Service spokesman Marq Webb, is burning from "stem to stern." Two firefighters have been killed, including one Wednesday, near Lubbock.

The fires continued to rage across Texas on Wednesday. Every heavy air tanker in the country is being deployed here, as are four C-130s and the California-based DC-10 fire tanker. A cold front eased back temperatures and raised humidity somewhat, but red-flag warnings remained in place in nearly every county.

Firefighting forces have been so overwhelmed that some small towns have been left to defend themselves.

Fort Davis' 35-man volunteer Fire Department raced to aid a neighboring town, Marfa, when most of the fires began two weeks ago, leaving its own community of 1,500 undefended. The Mile High Volunteers crew found a vacant house engulfed in flames, but saved every other home in town. But as they were working, 70-mph winds pushed the grassfire across bone-dry pastures, 21 miles to Fort Davis, where 1,000 visitors had gathered for an annual bike race and teens were shopping for prom clothes.

Just outside Marfa, Sheriff Rick McIvor watched from his SUV as 35-foot flames shot north, moving faster than he could drive. It seemed to McIvor that the fire was a sheet of flame, moving in undulating waves. Trying to keep his voice under control, McIvor radioed George "Judge" Grubb. The 69-year-old cattle rancher was in the fire station, where he has been a volunteer since he was a teenager.

"Judge, we've got a situation coming," McIvor said, adding that he'd get back as soon as he could.

The native black grama and blue grama grasses surrounding Fort Davis were tall and thick. The moisture in local timber had been recently measured at 2% — kiln-dried lumber comes in at 4% or 5%. It was hot, unseasonably so, with temperatures near 100 degrees. And everything was dry — dustier and more cracked than anyone could remember ever seeing before.

"We haven't had a drop — and I mean one drop — of precipitation of any kind since September," said Assistant Fire Chief Bart Medley, who, like most of the firefighters here, has a day job. He's the Jeff Davis County attorney.

Fires had been popping up in other parts of the state, in the piney woods to the east, in the suburbs of Austin in central Texas, as well as here in the Chihuahuan Desert. The Texas Forest Service had already issued dire warnings that a confluence of weather, drought, winds and an unlucky history were likely to unleash the worst fires the state had ever seen. The agency was proved correct.

Fort Davis was in trouble. The town's firefighters were in their rigs roaring back up Highway 17, chasing the same fire they had just herded out of Marfa. The fire's path, which began as skinny and spear-shaped, bulged as it went north, gaining size and speed as it consumed fuel. The wall of fire that neared Fort Davis was 5 miles wide.

The landscape in west Texas is adapted to fire, able to endure annual conflagrations. So too are its people. As the fire neared, ranchers rushed to gather their herds of black Angus, shoo goats and horses into barns or turn them loose to save themselves. One rancher's herd of cows and their calves fled the fire, but came to a dead stop at an impassable stock fence, where a shifting wind allowed the flames to catch them. In all, nine horses and 152 head of cattle perished.

By the time the Fort Davis firefighters returned, the town had caught a momentary break. The wind's caprice split the oncoming blaze in half and sent the flames around town. On U.S. Forest Service fire maps, Fort Davis is noticeable as a beige donut hole in an otherwise red-colored landscape.

But the wind lofted embers and ignited spot fires in every direction. More than two dozen homes were on fire. With every garden hose in town going full blast and fire crews pumping their reserves from tankers, more bad news arrived. Fires had incinerated power lines, and Fort Davis had no electricity. The Mile High Volunteers could no longer pump water with generators.

The department was down to the last 1,500 gallons of water in one pumper truck. Just as Medley was directing crews to drain the town's hotel pool, a crew from the Texas Department of Transportation arrived with a fleet of water tankers.

Twenty minutes later the Fire Department's radio transmitter, on a high hill outside of town, was destroyed by fire. Fire teams, which by late afternoon were joined by volunteer crews from nearby towns, talked to one another on radios, but dispatchers were scrambling to maintain a complete picture of the firefighting efforts.

The scenes ranged from surreal to awful. In the middle of the siege, Fort Davis held a funeral: The elderly mother of the town's director of emergency medical services had passed away. The funeral director had to be escorted by the sheriff past roadblocks and through smoke. The overwhelmed emergency services director could not attend. Nor could her husband, the Fort Davis fire dispatcher.

Many firefighters lost their own houses or barns while they defended their neighbors' homes. "They are all friends of ours, but they lost their homes and that's not easy to take," said Grubb, whose barn burned to the ground while he was working.

"There's nothing about losing structures that doesn't stink," said Medley.

Still, the crews marvel that not one died as a result of the fire, though others perished elsewhere.

Fort Davis is still defending itself from stubborn pieces of the fire. Its residents mostly are trying to figure out how to help others who were burned out or who lost ranch buildings, fencing and equipment. Officials here estimate that at least 2,000 miles of stock fencing has burned; it will cost $5.75 a foot to replace. An online fund to help has been established.

"People are tired and a little cranky, but this is hardy country and these are tough people," said Matt Miles, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church. "We'll make it out of this fine."

The Rock House fire that began here — at 312 square miles, it's 25% larger than the 2009 Station fire in Angeles National Forest — is now Texas' biggest and is roaring in the high country, where crews are making a stand to protect a remote Boy Scout camp and the McDonald Observatory. If this stubborn fire is not stopped on the rugged ridges of the Davis Mountains, a string of small towns on the other side of the hills are in danger.

julie.cart@latimes.com

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