(USA Today) -- Hundreds of homes destroyed. Thousands of scorched acres. More than 23,000 people urged or forced to evacuate.
And this may be just the beginning.
Fast-moving fires in Texas and California have consumed homes and forced residents to flee, brought on in part by an entrenched, withering drought in both states and throughout the southwestern USA.
On Thursday, for the first time in its 14-year history, the U.S. Drought Monitor, a federal website, classified the entire state of California as being in a "severe drought." Texas is still in the clutches of a four-year drought that has shriveled crops and led to massive wildfires.
The intensity and sheer size of California's drought is a phenomenon seen only once every generation, said climatologist Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb. The most comparable drought was one that hit the state in 1976-77. But the effects today are more intense because the state's population has doubled while the water supply has remained the same, he said.
"Throw a little record heat on the drought and we will now see impacts accelerate," Svoboda said, speaking of wildfires and other effects.
At least nine fires in Southern California have mauled nearly 10,000 acres around San Diego and Santa Barbara counties. Gusty Santa Ana winds, hot temperatures and dry conditions led to the fires. The city of Carlsbad felt the most heat: at least 18 apartment units and four homes destroyed and 23,000 evacuation notices sent to residents and businesses.
In San Marcos, Calif., about 250 people spent Wednesday night in the gym of Mission Hills High School, where the Red Cross has set up an evacuation center with cots, hot food, water and accommodations for pets. From the gym's doors, evacuees could see dark smoke and tall flames on a nearby ridge as helicopters and firefighting planes dropped retardant liquid.
Brent Littlefield, 48, took his wife, mother-in-law visiting from Brazil, two children and Curly, their 12-year-old cat, to the shelter when flames quickly approached their home Wednesday afternoon.
"We just saw it coming," he said Thursday. "It only took 10 minutes to go from a little wisp of smoke to big flames."
In and around Fritch in the Texas Panhandle, more than 300 firefighters from 37 departments have fought since Sunday to contain a raging fire that has destroyed 225 homes, scorched 2,583 acres and displaced 700 people. By Thursday afternoon, the fire was 90% contained and residents were being allowed back into their homes.
The fire started in a residential area of the Lake Meredith Harbor subdivision and quickly spread over the shores of the lake, which has been dry for years because of the drought. Fanned by 40-mph winds, the fire moved quickly, gutting homes, melting cars and leaving a black swath of destruction.
"A lot of these fires would be a lot more manageable and not nearly as damaging if not for the drought," said Danny Richards, Hutchinson County's emergency management coordinator.
Texas is in the midst of a historic drought that began in October 2010 and has no end in sight, state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said. The 43 months since the drought began have been the driest in recorded history for northwest Texas, which includes the Panhandle, he said.
In 2011 alone, the drought cost Texas nearly $8 billion in direct agricultural loss and forced ranchers to sell off 660,000 heads of cattle, said Travis Miller of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. The entrenched drought is raising beef prices to all-time highs and impacting cotton and wheat prices. California's drought could affect the cost of the many fruits and vegetables grown there, he said.
"You go to the Texas Panhandle and there are people there who haven't made a wheat crop in three years," Miller said.
Droughts don't always lead directly to wildfires, since they wither much of the underbrush needed to fuel fires. But a rainy season followed by a dry season could be disastrous, said Tom Spencer, a department head with the Texas Forest Service. In and along deep ravines, such as those found in Fritch, the likelihood of fire is much higher.
Fire officials knew something was coming. As early as November, they began mapping evacuation routes and handing out fliers, urging people to keep their lawns mowed and warning of impending fires, Hutchinson County Deputy Fire Chief Jason Wright said. Things had been too dry for too long.
"We knew we were going to have a fire like this and it was going to be bad," Wright said.
On Wednesday, he toured the tangle of burnt homes and cars, scorched lawns and black fields that sloped down into the dry lake. As damaging as the fire was, there were no injuries or fatalities. But more blazes are sure to come, Wright said.
"It seems to get worse and worse by the year," he said. "We're just not getting any moisture out here."