Five dead as grass fires hit two US states

Severe drought, gusty winds and high temperatures set the stage for the fires in Texas and Oklahoma that killed five people. Authorities believe they were mostly set by people ignoring fire bans and burning rubbish, shooting fireworks or throwing out cigarettes.

The flames ripped across nearly 20,000 acres in the two states. At least 73 blazes were reported in Texas over two days, and dozens more broke out in Oklahoma.

While the wind and high temperatures eased after the outbreak of fires on Tuesday, the National Weather Service predicted a return of the hazardous conditions on Saturday – prompting fears that New Year’s fireworks could spark another round of fires.

“It’s not going to be a good day to throw up fireworks,” meteorologist Alan Moller said. “This could lead to some really nasty fires.”

Cross Plains, a working-class town about 115 miles west of Fort Worth, Texas, was the hardest-hit community, losing about 50 homes and a church on Tuesday. Two of the state’s four deaths were reported there.

Remnants of several of the burned-out houses still smouldered yesterday evening, blanketing the air with a smoky haze and burning odour. Texas Governor Rick Perry planned to survey the Cross Plains damage by air today.

Another woman died near the Texas-Oklahoma line, after she apparently fell while helping her husband pour water on the grass around their house. Texas authorities confirmed a fourth death but did not immediately release details.

The fifth death was reported in Oklahoma, when a 69-year-old man collapsed and died while trying battling flames on his family’s property. Burns covered 70% of his body but doctors determined that he died of a heart attack.

The grass fires destroyed more than 100 buildings across Texas, including 78 homes, the state emergency management agency said. About 50 homes were destroyed in Oklahoma, authorities said.

This year has been the fifth driest year on record for north and central Texas, where most of the fires happened. The annual rainfall in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is about 16 inches less than the average of about 35 inches. Oklahoma has received about 24 inches of rain this year, about 12 inches less than normal.

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