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Image: An uncontrolled wildfire burns at the Jeff Davis and Presidio County line near Fort Davis, Texas, Sunday
Billy Marginot  /  AP
An uncontrolled wildfire burns at the Jeff Davis and Presidio County line near Fort Davis, Texas, on Sunday, April 10, 2011.
updated 4/12/2011 12:57:20 AM ET 2011-04-12T04:57:20

Firefighters battled Monday to contain several large blazes that have burned hundreds of square miles of rural Texas and destroyed dozens of homes since last week, getting reinforcements from out of state as they struggled against some of the worst wildfire conditions in state history.

One firefighter was in critical condition at a Lubbock hospital with severe burns suffered while fighting a Panhandle wildfire, officials said.

Powerful winds that sent walls of flame through parched ranchland in and around the West Texas communities of Fort Davis and Midland, incinerating more than 60 homes during the weekend and killing livestock and horses, took pity by directing the fires to largely unpopulated open spaces north and east of the cities.

An overnight thunderstorm — a rare occurrence of late, with the state coming off its driest March since 1895 — gave crews the break they needed to begin containing a wildfire that had scorched about 110 square miles of rolling prairies about 175 miles west of Fort Worth.

All of Texas is experiencing drought, and conditions are classified as extreme or exceptional in 60 percent of the state, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor map.

Rain from last summer's Hurricane Alex led to particularly lush vegetation growth, said Mark Stanford, the operations director for the Texas Forest Service. A cold winter and the drought killed off much of that growth, and with fewer cattle grazing on Texas pasturelands, the dried remains have provided a perfect fuel for wildfires to consume, he said.

Thus far this year, the Forest Service and fire departments have responded to 654 fires that have burned 916 square miles of land and destroyed 189 homes.

That's a far cry from March 2006 — when wildfires burned more than 3,000 square miles, destroyed 413 homes and killed 12 people in the deadliest wildfire month in state history. But Stanford said current wildfire conditions are even worse than five years ago.

"We're in new territory because it's drier than it has been for '06, '08 and '09, but there is more fuel to burn," Stanford said.

The parched conditions are expected to last for several days, at least, but the 30-40 mph winds that have been fueling the western blazes are expected to drop into the teens and low 20s, he said.

"And that makes a huge difference," Stanford said.

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It'll be too late for those who watched the terrifying, fast-moving fires sweep through their West Texas communities on Saturday and Sunday.

"It was unbelievable, just horrific. There were horses on fire, buildings on fire, houses on fire," said Bob Dillard, a former Jeff Davis county judge and editor of the weekly Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch.

One firefighter, Elias Jacquez of Cactus, Texas, suffered third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body Saturday while fighting a fire that charred 60,000 acres — about 94 square miles — about 40 miles north of Amarillo, according to Moore County Emergency Management spokesman David Garrett.

Jacquez was airlifted to University Medical Center in Lubbock, where he was in critical condition Monday night, Garrett said.

Ranchers were combing the burned landscape Monday looking for the remains of charred cattle and other animals to dispose of. There's also plenty of fencing that's destroyed on ranches during wildfires, making it difficult for ranchers to keep their animals on their property.

Fort Davis-area rancher Bobby McKnight, 50, said Monday he was worried last week whether he'd have enough feed for his cattle if it didn't rain soon. Now, he's dealing with the loss of his parents' 100-year-old home, which he thinks burned down because wildfires caused a nearby gas tank to explode. Three horses were killed.

He was there for a time as the fires raced north from Marfa, taking about two hours to go the 21 miles. He left to check on his own home and used sprayers to wet down his home.

"It was close," said McKnight, a lifetime rancher. "The fire was just at our front door."

Thirty-three states have sent firefighters or equipment to help Texas battle the wildfires this year, the state forest service said. A group of about 60 people from southern states is helping to manage planning and assessment of the western-most fires.

Thus far this year, the Forest Service and fire departments have responded to 654 fires that have burned 916 square miles of land and destroyed 189 homes.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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