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In swift fires, some Southwest towns are nearly erased

High winds stoke new fear in Texas

RINGGOLD, Texas -- Firefighters faced windier, warmer weather yesterday as they battled fast-moving blazes that have destroyed some small towns and charred hundreds of thousands of acres of drought-stricken Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico.

Since Dec. 27, flames racing across grassland and farmland have destroyed more than 250 buildings. Four deaths were reported last week.

On Monday, authorities went house to house in a search for victims in burned out Texas towns, including Ringgold. A weekend blaze destroyed most of the ranch and cattle community of about 100 people near the Oklahoma line. Fifty other homes and 40,000 acres were torched as wind swept the fire from Ringgold to Nocona.

Coylee Grimsley and her two sons watched their home burn just hours after she had cooked a large New Year's meal. ''We was enjoying it, and here come the flames," she said. ''If you'd been there, you'd have thought the world was going to end."

One of two major fires near San Angelo in West Texas, a 40,000-acre blaze in Sterling County, had been contained, authorities said. Fifteen structures were destroyed and two people suffered minor injuries. The other major blaze in the San Angelo area, a 50,000-acre fire with a 50-mile perimeter in Irion and Reagan counties, was about 70 percent contained yesterday. No damage or evacuations were reported.

All major wildfires in Oklahoma were declared under control late Monday thanks to calmer winds and higher humidity, but crews were preparing for the worst. Highs of up to 80 were possible yesterday with only 10 percent to 20 percent humidity and winds up to 25 miles per hour, the National Weather Service said.

''We will make sure that all the hot spots and smoldering areas are put out for the simple fact that if the wind picks up, we'll be in trouble," said Dan Ware, spokesman for New Mexico's state Forestry Division.

The Weather Service issued a ''red flag warning" for Texas yesterday because of the expected heat, low humidity, and wind. The warning indicates weather that could cause dangerous fire activity. Computer models showed no rain soon, said Jesse Moore, a Weather Service meteorologist in Fort Worth. He said the region's last appreciable rain was about a quarter-inch on Dec. 20. Oklahoma is more than a foot behind its normal rainfall of about 36 inches for this time of year.

Since the rash of wildfires began in Texas, more than 200,000 acres of land have been charred, 250 homes destroyed, and three people killed, the Texas Forest Service says.

Since Nov. 1, Oklahoma wildfires have consumed more than 331,000 acres and destroyed 220 homes and businesses, said Albert Ashwood, Oklahoma's emergency management director. One person was killed.

With his grandparents' Oklahoma City home in smoldering ruins, 10-year-old Cameron Batson found something to be thankful for: He pointed out the basketball goal in the driveway that remained intact after the three-level brick home was turned into ashen rubble.

''We had some good times here," the boy said Monday, his voice cracking with emotion. ''It was a pretty house."

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