2 confirmed dead in string of East Texas wildfires

A woman and her 18-month-old daughter died Sunday as a fast-moving fire burned a home before they could get out.

The child was found under her 20-year-old mother in the remains of the home on Lincoln Springs Road off Old Gladewater between Liberty City and Gladewater, said Maxey Cerliano, Gregg County Sheriff

“This is rough. It is a tough thing for us to have to deal with. The family is here in the yard and they are of course very distraught,” he said.

Cerliano said of the neighborhood where the fatal fire occurred, “It’s hard driving down here and seeing every house just burned to the ground.”

The names of the victims are being withheld until proper identification could be made, Cerliano said.

One man was able to get out of the house before the fire consumed it, but suffered burns, Cerliano said.

The fire was one of dozens that raged across East Texas Sunday as high winds pushed walls of flames toward neighborhood after neighborhood.

Texas Forest Service officials estimated more than 1,400 acres burned in the area and multiple homes, barns and vehicles were lost.

Melanie Spradling, a public information officer with the Texas Forestry Service, said she could not put a number to the fires today.

“We’ve completely depleted our resources,” she said. “We’re on every fire we can possibly handle and then some.”

She said the combination of dry weather and high winds is a recipe for wildfires.

National Weather Service Meteorologist Matt Hemingway said Tyler’s peak wind gust Sunday was recorded at 43 mph, or 37 knots, around noon. Longview’s peak wind gust was recorded at 45 mph around the same time. Wind speeds varied from 15 to 20 mph in Tyler.

The rain from Tropical Storm Lee lingered east of Texas while this area received all the wind, he said.
“With as hot and dry as the summer was, all that does is fuel the fires,” Hemingway said. “Right now, the chances for any rainfall from the tropical storm is basically nil.”

All of North East Texas was under a red flag warning Sunday because fires could quickly be triggered by the heat, low relative humidity and gusty winds, he said.

Hemingway said stressed trees are becoming weaker and snapping under wind conditions not usually considered strong enough to do damage.

Typical wind speeds needed to break limbs are around 50 to 60 mph, he said.

He expects peak wind gusts to be around 30 mph today and to decline as the cold front approaches, leaving high temperatures throughout the week in the 80s.

Oncor Tyler area Customer Operations Manager Charles Hill said about 6,000 East Texans were without power Sunday.

“It’s been a tough day with all the wind,” Hill said. “Almost everything has been wind and tree related.”
Outages were scattered throughout East Texas, from the Tyler area through Lufkin and Nacogdoches, he said.

The most sever outage, caused by a transformer “going off,” had about two-third of Crockett and all of Lovelady out Sunday, Hill said.

A wildfire, sparked by a downed power line and fueled by high winds, scorched about 350 acres Sunday along Texas Highway 64 in Ben Wheeler, said Chris Meyer, Ben Wheeler fire chief.

The national weather service issued a red flag warning and wind advisory Sunday for Ben Wheeler. The service also posted a fire weather watch and a hazardous weather outlook. Reported wind speeds in Ben Wheeler were at 26 mph.

Firefighters responded to the fire around 11:30 a.m., Sunday after high winds caused a tree to fall and snap a power line near County Road 4411 and Texas 64, Meyer said.

About 50 firefighters and four dozers from Ben Wheeler Fire Department, Baxter, Canton, Edom, the Texas Forestry Service, Midway and South Van Zandt County responded to the fire, Meyer said.

No major structures were involved and no one was injured, he said. The fire did bubble the siding to a nearby home. There was rumor that the town called for evacuations; however, Meyer said they were not implemented.

Traffic on Texas 64 was not blocked, Van Zandt County Sheriff’s Office helped control traffic as firefighters worked near the side of the roadway.

By 6:30 p.m., Meyer estimated the fire would take another two or three hours to extinguish.

“There are fires everywhere,” Meyer said, commenting to the number of fires throughout East Texas Sunday. “Any little thing could spark on. … Glass in a ditch could reflect a fire right now.”

A fire near Tyler Pounds Field Regional Airport closed multiple roads in the area near the airport as firefighters worked feverishly to extinguish the flames.

One homeowner, Jason Martin, said 45 minutes before he noticed the fire, the power flickered on and off. Then when he let out his dog, he smelled the smoke.

“This is kind of scary. All I’m doing is trying to prevent anything from catching on fire,” he said as black smoke billowed behind him and his wife packed several items into their vehicle.

Smith County Fire Marshall Jim Seaton said the airport fire was one of six in the county at the same time, but additional fires tried the firefighters and their resolve before the day was done.

“This is mind boggling that there is this many large fires at one time,” Assistant Fire Marshall Oren Hale said as he looked over a burning field on County Road 240.

Hale worked a fire on the Rusk/Smith county lines where strong winds pushed a wall toward the firefighters.

“This is where they will attempt to stop it,” Hale said as the smoke thickened and trees burst into flames.
Seaton said the last time he remembered so many large fires was decades ago.

“The conditions were set for this. We hope that we get a break tomorrow,” he said. “We need it.”


Published Sept. 5
Tyler Morning Telegraph
Written by Melissa Crowe and Kenneth Dean

Published by

Melissa Crowe

I’m Melissa, an adventure-seeking, budget-crunching, internet-loving journalist. Along with covering local government at Victoria Advocate, I write a weekly music column for Get Out and freelance for University of Houston-Victoria in my spare time. In this year’s Texas Associated Press Managing Editors awards, I won first place for star breaking news report of the year, first star online package of the year, first community service and first deadline writing. I also won third place for team effort, honorable mention for freedom of information, and honorable mention for star investigative report of the year. I also took first place for best breaking news story in the Local Media Association Editorial Contest, a national contest. Last year, I won second in the TAPME contest for star online package, third for star breaking news report and honorable mentions for star investigative report and team effort. The Local Media Association awarded me with an honorable mention for best breaking news story. I grew up in rural northern Texas and graduated from the University of North Texas. After working for a family-owned paper in the eastern corner of the state, I took an opportunity to move south. When I’m not filing FOIA requests, I enjoy spicy Bloody Marys, kayaking the Guadalupe River and exploring South Texas. Would you like to hire me to write or edit something? Or ask me a question? Or send me a link to a funny GIF? Email me!

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