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Winds ease, aiding fire crews on Plains

Aircraft join fight against blazes in Texas, Oklahoma

Evacuees gather for a prayer Sunday night as a fire burns near Oklahoma City.




DALLAS, Texas (CNN) -- Firefighters in Texas and Oklahoma got an unexpected helping hand from the weather Monday, as calmer winds allowed aircraft to join the struggle against raging grassland blazes.

Winds that had been forecast to blow 20-30 mph did not materialize. High winds have fanned fires burning across much of the Texas and Oklahoma Plains for the past week.

A 20,000-acre fire in Sterling County, Texas, about 120 miles west of Dallas, was burning out of control Monday, the state Department of Emergency Management reported. A fire of unknown size had destroyed 32 homes near the small town of Ringgold, near the Oklahoma state line.

"This fire up here in Ringgold is kicking up on us pretty good," said Traci Weaver, a spokeswoman for the Texas Forest Service. "We're flying heavy air tankers on it." (Watch flames char Texas grasslands -- 2:45)

More than 80,000 acres of grassland have burned since December 26 in Texas, destroying 278 homes, the state reported. Firefighters reported 72 homes destroyed and 174 saved between Sunday and Monday morning, and 3,200 residents in Montague County, near Ringgold, had to evacuate ahead of the blaze.

In Eastland County, near the town of Carbon, 15,000 acres had burned and 35 homes were destroyed, the state reported.

Firefighters were performing house-to-house searches in areas that saw significant structural damage, but had no indication of any deaths, Weaver said. Since last week, authorities have blamed three deaths in Texas and one in Oklahoma on the fires.

In Oklahoma, more than 70,000 acres have burned since Tuesday. Sunday night, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry asked President Bush to declare an emergency in the state and commit federal resources to battling the fires.

Monday, firefighters were battling several fires east of the capital, including a large blaze near the towns of Prague and Paden, state emergency management officials reported. (Watch fires force Oklahomans to flee their homes -- 1:58)

Only a quarter-inch of rain has been recorded in Oklahoma City since the end of October, leaving the surrounding Plains tinder-dry. Henry said Sunday night that forecasters predict "no significant precipitation" in the next several days.

"It could very well get worse before it gets better," Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said Monday. "We need rain in the forecast, and we need it quick."

Five homes were destroyed in a northeastern Oklahoma City neighborhood Sunday night, and another 60 were lost 20 miles north of the city, Oklahoma County emergency management director David Barnes told CNN.

Authorities in Texas and Oklahoma were warning residents to be careful handling flammable materials and to dispose carefully of burning items like cigarette butts. Weaver said people so far appear to have heeded those warnings.

"What we're seeing on at least two of the large fires that we're on in Texas right now, they have both been caused by arcing power lines," she said. "So it's not been carelessness, and fortunately, we didn't have people out there being crazy with fireworks yesterday."

Winds were expected to pick up again Tuesday, perhaps to 40 mph, Oklahoma Emergency Management Director Albert Ashwood said. He said if that forecast holds true, conditions could be comparable to those the state suffered through Sunday.

"Yesterday was a terrible day," he said. "We had 20 homes that were destroyed. We've had 220-plus homes and businesses since November 1 that have been destroyed."

CNN's Ed Lavandera contributed to this report.

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