11 Dead as Fires Spread Across Texas Panhandle

Eleven people have died in the massive wildfires that continue to spread in the panhandle of Texas. Michele Norris talks with Kim Powell, the Fire Chief of Pampa, Texas, where four people have died from the fires.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Eleven people have died in the massive wildfires that continue to spread in the panhandle of Texas. Ten thousand acres have burned fueled by wind gusts of up to 58 miles per hour. Pampa is in Gray County, Texas. The fire has caused four deaths there. The Fire Chief of Pampa is Kim Powell and she joins us now by phone. Chief Powell, can you describe for us what it was like to see that wall of fire approaching Pampa?

Chief KIM POWELL (Pampa, Texas): Ominous is a huge word but it's what we used to describe it. Actually the flames were over our booster trucks, which stand in excess of eight feet tall, four-wheel drive. And then from that point up there was an orange glow and then on top of that was the black smoke. And as it came rolling into the community, we actually had it switch directions and we thought maybe it was going to head north from the community, but then we got a west wind that brought it back across the community and caused it to come into an area where we had housing.

NORRIS: Have you had to evacuate people?

Chief POWELL: We evacuated some small areas in Pampa. There have been communities that were outside of Gray County that were evacuated, but yes they were mandatory evacuated. And we actually had some houses that were impacted in those areas.

NORRIS: And do you have a lot of livestock in this area? What do you do in that case?

Chief POWELL: I've often referenced today that, you know how a rock will hit a body of water and the ripples go out from that rock, that's what we're starting to seen now are those ripples. And the livestock is one of those. We, obviously we're looking at lives and property and then, of course, we're looking at the grasslands and the animals. And the animals have been impacted. It is one of our major industries in this area, and we've had reports that people have lost 50 percent of their herds, that there are animals that are alive and burned and need to be dealt with, and some that have had to have been put down.

NORRIS: And you say people evacuated, so they don't know what kind of damage they face when they return home.

Chief POWELL: No ma'am. I believe that they're able to be able to do that. You know, yesterday they got back into some of those areas, but we haven't even begun to do the assessment. We're still in the infancy of all of that.

NORRIS: So, it sounds like the fire is now under control. How much help did you get from outside of the area?

Chief POWELL: Starting to name that to you right now would be a huge task. We have, you know, Red Cross and Salvation Army, and we had area fire departments and we had area landscaping crews, and we had county maintainers. I mean, the list just goes on and on and on of the help that we had in this area.

NORRIS: Now, you're suffering through a drought in that area right now. Are you out of the woods?

Chief POWELL: Absolutely not. The National Weather Service has told us tomorrow that we're looking at our winds picking up this afternoon. And then as we go along our relative humidity is going to drop. So, we're really looking at tomorrow could be another day. And I don't want to speak ill in that way, but we're just gearing up for that.

NORRIS: Now Chief Powell I understand that you've been working in the fire department for 20 years?

Chief POWELL: Yeah.

NORRIS: Have you ever seen anything like this?

Chief POWELL: No. This is something that has been beyond something that you could imagine. Our county judge currently estimated, as he did a tour of our county, that over 55 percent of our county has been impacted as far as wild land. And then you add that to the structures, and you add to that the impact on livestock and wildlife and, you know, people as far as, you know, accidents and victims of this type of fire and losing their homes. No ma'am I have not seen anything like this in my 20 years.

NORRIS: Well, Chief Powell, all the best to you. Thanks so much for taking time out to talk to us.

Chief POWELL: Yes ma'am.

NORRIS: Kim Powell is the Fire Chief of Pampa. That's in Gray County, Texas.

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