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Hot weather forecast for Texas as battle against wildfires continues

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Tried by fire, ranchers fight on
  • NEW: Fires scorch 10,000-acre ranch west of Fort Worth
  • Firefighters are still working to contain the largest fires in the state
  • Critical fire weather is forecast for Texas during the first part of the week
  • The Texas Forest Service responded to 17 new fires Saturday

Dallas (CNN) -- Hot, dry weather returns to Texas this week, whisking away the limited relief scattered thunderstorms brought to firefighters in parts of the Lone Star state over the weekend.

In a trifecta of potentially bad news for fire crews, the Texas Forest Service said a low-pressure system will push temperatures into the 90s, humidity to 10% or less and winds up to 45 mph on Monday and Tuesday.

The conditions have prompted the National Weather Service to issue a red flag warning for a large portion of west Texas, urging residents to avoid the use of open flames and to avoid activities that may generate sparks.

Because of the hot temperatures, bone-dry conditions and high winds, "accidental ignitions will have the potential to grow quickly into dangerous wind-driven wildfires," the weather service said.

The system will bring with it a chance of precipitation. However, rain accompanied by thunderstorms can be a mixed-blessing for firefighters, since lightning can ignite new fires.

Forced out by fire, evacuees come home

One such fire scorched nearly every inch of a 10,000-acre north Texas ranch, about 70 miles west of Fort Worth.

The Cormack family has raised cattle near Strawn for a quarter century, but now are coping with the loss of 15% of its herd and nearly all of its grazing land.

"Its something you can't really explain. This is home," Justin Comack told CNN's Patrick Oppmann. "I know a lot of people think ... it's just land, but you know this is my backyard and we ran cattle out here since I was a baby."

Some of the cattle were nearly incinerated by the fast-moving flames. All Cormack can do is number the carcasses with green spray paint, take their pictures and log their GPS locations, hoping the family eventually will be compensated for its losses.

Even for the surviving cattle, the road will be tough -- many suffered burns and may have to be put down.

Grazing land has become a precious comodity, with most of the landscape charred following the fire.

"We've been really lucky that we have friends all over and people, strangers that come together and donate as much hay as they can," according to brother Jake Cormack, who said he's looking for grass leases to feed his herd until "we can get over this hump."

The Forest Service responded to 17 new fires over the weekend, but the blazes were slowed by storms that brought softball-sized hail and reports of tornadoes.

The largest of these new fires is the Pipeline fire in Tyler and Hardin counties. Covering some 7,101 acres, it was caused by an oil well flare. National Park Service personnel were involved in the fight against the blaze and it is now 90% contained.

Wet weather over the past few days helped firefighters maintain control over many of the fires burning in the state, the Texas Forest Service said.

The largest of them is the 207,660-acre Rockhouse fire in Jeff Davis County, which is 75% contained as of Sunday night. Firefighters had to abandon the fight against the conflagration in the Davis mountains, according to an update from the Forest Service, because of concerns about safety and a lack of reliable communications. The agency said the difficult terrain made use of bulldozers impossible and aerial resources had proved ineffective.

The PK Complex of fires burning west of Fort Worth is now 50% contained, assisted by significant rainfall, the Forest Service said. On Sunday, crews worked on constructing lines through the 126,734-acre fire. The also burned pockets of vegetation around the fire's perimeter.

The 159,308-acre Wildcat fire in Coke County, north of San Angelo, is 75% contained. On Sunday, crews were able to focus on patrol and mop-up operations, according to the Texas Forest Service.

West Texas averages nearly 15 inches of rain a year, according to David Hennig, a meteorologist in Midland. Over the past six months, just 13-hundredths of an inch of rain have been recorded in that part of the state.

While October through March is typically the dry season, that amount of rainfall is far below what it should be, Hennig said.

Two firefighters have died since the latest outbreaks began, with numerous others injured, state officials said.