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Fires ravage drought-stricken Texas Panhandle

7 deaths reported; 1,900 are displaced

BORGER, Texas -- Using bulldozers and air tankers yesterday, firefighters struggled to stop wind-blown wildfires that scorched more than 1,000 square miles of the drought-stricken Texas Panhandle.

The blazes were blamed for at least seven deaths, four of them in a crash on a smoke-shrouded highway over the weekend. About 1,900 people in seven counties were evacuated.

''This has been a very deadly wildfire season, but Texas communities have shown strength, and we're going to continue fighting these fires from the ground and from the air," said Rachael Novier, a spokeswoman for Governor Rick Perry.

There was no immediate estimate of the number of homes that had been damaged or destroyed.

Firefighters used bulldozers to plow fire breaks in the parched earth, while air tankers dropped water on the flames.

Eleven fires burned over an estimated 530,000 acres yesterday, down from 663,000 acres over the weekend.

State fire crews fought more than 160 blazes in one 24-hour period.

The scorched area easily eclipsed the 455,000 acres that burned in December and January, when Perry declared a disaster because of fires.

The cause of the latest blazes was under investigation, authorities said.

The previous fires appeared to have been sparked by people who burned trash, tossed cigarettes, or illegally set off fireworks in the middle of one of the worst droughts in Texas in 50 years.

About 3.5 million acres, amounting to about 2 percent of the state's land mass, have burned since Dec. 26.

A blaze near Borger covered 432,000 acres, a fire near Groom consumed 211,000 acres, and a fire south of Childress burned 20,000 acres.

One of the most intense fires burned yesterday about 10 miles north of Pampa. Winds blew it toward the town of about 17,000 people, said Donny Hooper, a spokesman for Gray County Emergency Operations.

Four of the dead were killed Sunday in a chain-reaction accident involving nine vehicles on a smoky Interstate 40 near Groom, about 40 miles east of Amarillo. Three people died in fires near Borger -- two of them trying to escape a grass fire that consumed their home, said Captain Mike Galloway of the local Fire Department.

''The brush fire overtook their house and yard and got them," he said. ''The flames just spread so fast."

The fires were fanned by the same storm system that caused deadly tornadoes and storms in the Midwest. Winds of 55 mph combined with low humidity on Sunday to spread the flames.

The wind dropped to 15 or 20 miles per hour yesterday and the humidity rose, but no rain is expected before Saturday.

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