Texas Wildfires Scorch 700,000 Acres

Rapidly spreading wildfires have scorched nearly 700,000 acres of Texas grasslands -- the equivalent of two-thirds of Rhode Island --according to forestry officials.

At least 11 deaths have been blamed on the fires in the state's northeastern panhandle. Four of those people died in a traffic accident Sunday while trying to flee a fast-moving blaze. Four others were found dead in a car Monday evening after running off a road and into a ravine.

"At this time Roberts County Sheriff's Office and DPS (Texas Department of Public Safety) authorities are investigating to determine the cause of the accident as well as the identity of the bodies," said a statement form Texas State Trooper Daniel Hawthorne.

"The information obtained at this time suggests that these individuals died as a result of the large grass fire in Roberts County."

Spokeswoman Marylynn Grossman said two fires charred more than 650,000 acres in only an 8-hour period Sunday. The two were about 40 percent contained as of Monday evening, a DPS statement said.

The two fires -- one along Interstate 40, the other just east of Borger -- spread easily along the extremely dry terrain, Grossman said.

At the same time, several other fires were reported, one of them charring Buckle L ranch in Cottle County and spreading into Childress County, in the northwest part of the state. That fire included not only dry grass, but also oak and juniper trees, which can burn longer, Grossman said.

That same ranch was on fire 10 years ago almost to the day, she said.

As of late Monday, 697,000 acres were burning in Hutchinson, Gray, Cottle and Childress counties.

Although authorities do not know how the fires started, Grossman said lightning was not the cause. "We can probably say it was some kind of a human cause," she said.

"With everything being so dry and the high winds, the slightest spark would take it away and make it a disastrous fire."

About 2,000 people in seven counties have been evacuated.

The state's fire resources have been mobilized, and additional help has come in from other states, including New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Smoke from the fires contributed to a nine-car accident on Interstate 40 near Groom, killing four people. After the crash, a stretch of I-40 near Amarillo was closed to motorists for a time.

Borger Fire Department Capt. Mike Galloway said there were three fatalities east of Borger in Hutchinson county.

According to Galloway, the fire in the northern part of the panhandle was burning out of control.