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Progress made against Texas wildfire, but new blazes erupt

From Jim Spellman, CNN
A helicopter helps fight a fire around Possum Kingdom Lake in Palo Pinto County, Texas, on Thursday.
A helicopter helps fight a fire around Possum Kingdom Lake in Palo Pinto County, Texas, on Thursday.
  • NEW: A high school and several homes in Noble, Oklahoma, are evacuated
  • In Texas, the 101 Ranch Fire is 50% contained
  • Some evacuations have been lifted, an official says
  • Firefighters still battling hot spots in Oklahoma City

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Brad, Texas (CNN) -- Firefighters have made some progress in battling a spreading wildfire in northern Texas, but dry conditions contributed to a rash of new fires as well, officials said Thursday.

The 101 Ranch Fire in Palo Pinto County had scorched 6,200 acres as of Thursday, according to the Texas Forest Service. The blaze is burning on Possum Kingdom Lake, near the town of Brad, about 100 miles west of Dallas.

However, "we feel much better about this fire today" as the blaze is now 50% contained, said John Nichols, spokesman for the forest service. Some evacuations were lifted, he said.

The flames have destroyed 40 homes and nine RVs, the Forest Service said Thursday. Firefighters were receiving support from aerial tankers and helicopters.

Authorities are working on a re-entry strategy for residents, said Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer, and they are trying to get the lake open for the Labor Day holiday.

On Wednesday, evacuations were ordered in several communities on the north side of the lake after the fire charged over a ridge and approached a dam on the lake, CNN affiliate WFAA reported. The Forest Service pulled out of its command observation post, telling journalists and onlookers to get out of the way of the flames.

Wildfires force evacuations in TX, OK
Drought keeps Texas wildfire burning
Wildfire burns near Oklahoma City
  • Wildfires
  • Texas
  • Oklahoma

Tom Hardeston was among the residents watching helplessly. "My house is right through here, though it may be gone," he told WFAA.

Nearby ranchers battled to save their herds from the encroaching fire.

"I'm just moving them from pasture to pasture," Cindi McCoy told WFAA, referring to her livestock. "As one pasture burns, I'm moving them back to that one and bring(ing) them back around."

The Forest Service responded on Wednesday to 17 new fires burning a total of 4,146 acres. The largest of those is the Hornets Tank Fire, which had burned 3,000 acres and was 40% contained Thursday. It was burning in Briscoe County near Palo Duro Canyon, the nation's second-largest canyon behind the Grand Canyon.

In addition, the Legacy Fire had burned 3,400 acres in Howard County and was 10% contained Thursday, the Forest Service said. The blaze threatens numerous structures, but did not show much growth on Wednesday.

The weather forecast continued to predict mostly dry weather for the area, with high temperatures from the mid-90s into the 100s, the Forest Service said.

Texas is experiencing the worst fire season in state history. Since fire season began last November, a record 3.5 million acres have burned. Hot and dry weather combined with a historic drought have made conditions ripe for rapid fire growth.

In the past seven days, the Forest Service has responded to 224 fires burning a combined 31,541 acres.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Oklahoma, firefighters were battling hot spots Thursday from a wildfire in northeast Oklahoma City, Fire Chief Keith Bryant said. National Guard helicopters were assisting, Bryant said.

The blaze was one of two large brush fires that had covered more than 16 square miles on the city's north and south sides Wednesday, forcing some evacuations and closure of Interstate 40 and the Turner Turnpike. Both roads were later reopened, CNN affiliate KOCO said.

Thursday is "day three of very poor fire conditions for us," said David Barnes, Oklahoma County Emergency Manager. Firefighters, including some from around the state, are "kind of ragged," he said.

Barnes did not have an estimate on how many homes were lost on the city's north side. On Tuesday, a dozen were lost in that blaze.

Fighting the south side fire "went very well for us," he said. Three or four barns were lost, he said, along with one mobile home and one abandoned home.

In the nearby town of Noble, a high school and several houses were evacuated Thursday because of a spreading wildfire, authorities said.

Buses were called to the 880-student Noble High School when the fire moved close to the campus, said Grenda Lee, administrative assistant to the school superintendent.

Several agencies were fighting the Noble wildfire, police department communications officer John Lesher said.

The record-setting heat and drought plaguing Texas and Oklahoma -- as well as a heat wave experienced by other states -- result from abnormally strong high pressure over the Atlantic and Pacific.

The high pressure keeps the jet stream, typically a source of cooler air and precipitation, to the north, while winds funnel hot, tropical air into the south-central United States, according to NASA, which released satellite data Wednesday showing the phenomenon during July.

But the conditions persist, said CNN meteorologist Sean Morris. "The ridge of high pressure aloft refuses to release its grip. There are some subtle signs that it may weaken into next week and allow a tropical system to move into" southeastern Texas, he said. "This would have the potential to bring some very significant and beneficial rains to that area. But it looks like Oklahoma is going to remain high and dry."

CNN's Dave Alsup contributed to this report.