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Wildfires Ravage Southern Plains

By the time the smoke cleared Wednesday, about 100 homes across wildfire-stricken Texas and Oklahoma lay in ruins and at least five people were dead, including two elderly women trapped in their homes by the flames.

The hardest-hit community during Tuesday's blazes was Cross Plains, a West Texas ranching and oil-and-gas town of 1,000 people some 150 miles from Dallas. Cross Plains also lost about 50 homes and a church after the flames raced through grass dried out by the region's worst drought in 50 years.

Two elderly women there were killed after being trapped in their homes, said Sparky Dean, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety. And in Callisburg, Texas, near the Oklahoma line, another woman apparently fell and broke her hip and could not get out of her home before it was destroyed, firefighters said.

No information was immediately available on the fourth death in Texas. A fifth person was killed in Oklahoma.

In parts of Texas, 2005 has been driest year since 1956, reports CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod. The last six months in Oklahoma has been the driest half-year on record since 1921.

Arlington, Texas deputy fire marshal Keith Ebel told Axelrod that despite diminishing winds, he fears the worst is not yet over.

"We get another 20 mile an hour day and we're right back where we were yesterday," Ebel said.

"We had a tornado here years ago and we thought that was devastating. This lasted for hours and hours," said Patricia Cook, a special education aide whose Cross Plains home was saved by her 18-year-old son, J.D., and a friend. They saw the flames approaching the house from across a field and ran to save it.

"The fire was literally nipping at their heels," she said. "He just picked up the hose and started watering things down."

Elsewhere on her block, the front brick wall and part of a side wall were all that were left standing of the First United Methodist Church. The steeple lay across the ground. Ten other homes on her street also were reduced to charcoal.

Teresa Kennedy stood with her two children Wednesday outside her mother's home, destroyed in just minutes the day before. She and her seven siblings had left their home untouched since their mother's death six years ago.

"There's nothing," a tearful Kennedy said of her childhood home, a mix of brick and wood.

Most of the homes destroyed in Cross Plains were modest, working-class houses built during the 1930s and '40s. The fire spared a town landmark, the nearly century-old house — now a museum

of Robert E. Howard, author of the "Conan the Barbarian" books.

All together, the grass fires destroyed more than 100 buildings across Texas, including 78 homes, the state emergency management agency said. Two dozen more homes were reported destroyed in Oklahoma.

Conditions had also eased in Kennedale, near Fort Worth, where outbuildings and storage sheds were destroyed by the flames.

"We are just in the process … of surveying some of the damage that we got. It's quite amazing that there wasn't more (damage) than we actually have here," Kennedale Mayor Jim Norwood told CBS radio station KRLD.

Wind gusting to 40 mph drove the flames across nearly 20,000 acres in the two U.S. states. At least 73 blazes were reported in Texas over two days, and dozens more broke out in Oklahoma.

Fires were still smoldering Wednesday in four Texas counties. One new fire broke out Wednesday in an isolated area of eastern Oklahoma but was quickly contained.

Severe drought set the stage for the fires, which authorities believe were started mostly by people shooting off fireworks, tossing cigarettes or burning trash in spite of bans imposed because of the drought. A fallen power line apparently started one Oklahoma blaze.

Temperatures throughout the country were about 10 to 20 degrees warmer than usual, reports CBS News' Early Show weatherman Dave Price.

Rainfall this year in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of North Texas, where most of the fires broke out, is about 16 inches below the average of about 35 inches, National Weather Service meteorologist Alan Moller said.

"The last time we had something quite this bad, you got to go back to about 1956, when we had 18.55 inches," Moller said.

The weather service's long-term forecasts show the drought intensifying through early 2006.

Oklahoma has received about 24 inches of rain this year, about 12 inches less than normal.

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