Massive Wildfires Scorch Parched Texas Panhandle

Firefighters are gaining control of wildfires that swept across the Texas panhandle this week, killing 11 people and thousands of horses and cattle. Witnesses in the hardest-hit counties say it is the worst disaster to hit the area in their lifetimes. Alex Chadwick talks to Jeff Brady, who's covering the fires from the town of Perryton in northwest Texas.

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MADELEINE BRAND, Host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Wildfires that killed eleven people this week have spared several towns in the Texas panhandle. Almost a million acres have burned there. That's more than a thousand square miles. Winds in Texas are dying down, giving firefighters a chance to get the fire under control. Joining us is NPR's Jeff Brady, he's keeping track of the fires from Perryton, Texas, I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. Jeff?

JEFF BRADY reporting:

You've got that right, Alex.

CHADWICK: This is near the Texas/Oklahoma border?

BRADY: It is.

CHADWICK: And how are things there? You've talked to firefighters.

BRADY: Right, I spent a couple of hours with firefighters this morning and they seem pretty optimistic. Certainly the part of the fire that I saw was burning pretty slowly. Primarily because the wind had changed direction and that was forcing the fire back on itself. And that's a good thing because when it's forced back on the areas that are already burned, then the flames start to die down because there's no dry grass or brush to keep them going. But every firefighter I talked to said the weather of course will be key, said the wind can change directions in this part of the country in an instant, and if it starts blowing out of the Southwest again, that could send the fire into new territory.

CHADWICK: When we spoke earlier to a firefighter, earlier this week I mean, Texas firefighter, he talked about how fast these flames go. Now, weren't there evacuations ordered in the area where you are?

BRADY: Well, that was actually a voluntary evacuation. It was issued by the Texas Forest Service, and a lot of the folks on the ground thought that the Forest Service was overreacting a bit, because the fire was more than thirty miles away from a town of any size. But with the high winds, of course, these fires can move pretty quickly.

And I did talk with a few people who were packing up some things, last night, just in case they had to evacuate. Overall though it looks like most people stayed put. But again, if that wind changes direction, those folks could be ordered to leave by local authorities.

CHADWICK: And they're still worried because there's a drought there and it's very, very dry.

BRADY: Yeah, that's a big concern. Fire season doesn't usually begin until mid-April and here we are in March with the largest fires in Texas history, and officials say if this is any indication of the upcoming fire season it's going to be a long hard one. And of course this was a concern all over the Southwest. Already we've seen plenty of fires in just about every state. New Mexico, Colorado. It's a very dry year.

CHADWICK: And how about Oklahoma, right next to you there? I mean things are getting worse there?

BRADY: Yeah. There was a concern last night that the fire here in Northeastern Texas would make it the fifty or so miles all the way to Oklahoma, but that didn't happen. Crews were able to keep it in control because of the wind change and everything. But in the meantime, a few grass fires started in Oklahoma, and they've burned more than 4,000 acres so far and they've got some pretty hefty winds there. They're talking about winds up to about 25 miles per hour, and so those fires are sure to spread. For a little while fire officials in Oklahoma were worried about a subdivision outside of Oklahoma City, but it looks like that threat has passed now, but certainly the fires in Oklahoma are a concern.

CHADWICK: All right, thanks very much. NPR's Jeff Brady speaking with us from Perryton, Texas. Thank you, Jeff.

BRADY: My pleasure.

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