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Monday, April 18, 2011

Fires burn across Texas with no end in sight

Dallas- Dozens of large fires burned out of control Monday in Texas in what officials described as unprecedented conditions that show no signs of abating soon.

"We're experiencing conditions never seen in Texas before," said Marq Webb, a public information officer with the Texas Forest Service, which was devoting massive resources to the effort. "Yesterday, we had 1,400 people and that number will go up today," Webb said Monday in a telephone interview from the service's incident command center in Merkel just west of Abilene.
In all, the Forest Service has been asked to help battle fires covering some 700,000 acres, he said.
Thirty-one fires were being fought in East Texas; another 11 fires in West Texas, officials said.

"We've had 19 consecutive days of just super-dry weather, relative humidities in the single digits," said Forest Service spokeswoman C.J. Norvell in Midland. "What we're seeing right now is winds that are typical of spring, but everything else is typical of late summer -- no rain, vegetation that's just super dry. When you combine those two, it really has not boded well."
The Wildcat Fire just north of San Angelo has led to the evacuation of hundreds of people from their homes, Norvell said. The same fire threatens three small communities just north of Saint Angelo -- Robert Lee, Bronte and Tennyson, she said.
A predicted change in wind direction from south to southwest could worsen the prognosis, she said. "This little change is going to test some infrastructure and fire lines that we've set up," she said.
The fires have a variety of causes -- s some of them acts of nature, such as lightning strikes -- but most of them acts of man, said Webb. Those include anything from fence welding to debris burning, despite the fact that burn bans are in effect for 195 of the state's 254 counties, he said.
Texas authorities have made an arrest in connection with one of hundreds of blazes scorching the state in what a Forest Service official called the "perfect storm for wildfires."
A man was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment, which is a felony under Texas law, Austin Fire Department Battalion Chief Palmer Buck said early Monday. The man, whom authorities did not immediately identify, was being held under a $50,000 bond.
According to Buck, the man started a campfire at a homeless camp in a remote area, which got out of control and prompted evacuations. The fire burned about 60 acres.
"We're experiencing conditions we've never seen in Texas before," he said. "We have a huge area of Texas with abundant fuels and they are tinder dry -- and I'm talking about probably half of the state."
Monday's forecast was worse than Sunday's, "and tomorrow's supposed to be worse than today," he said. Though temperatures are expected to dip Wednesday, they were predicted to ramp back up on Thursday and Friday.
Such weather has taxed the resources available to fight the fires. "We're stretched pretty thin right now," Webb said.
Conditions this spring are the driest they've been in Texas since 1917, said a Texas Forest Service spokeswoman.
Authorities have responded to 7,807 fires across more than 1.5 million acres since this year's wildfire season began, Gov. Rick Perry wrote over the weekend in a letter to President Barack Obama. Perry requested that the federal government declare Texas a disaster area. Fires have affected all but two of the state's 254 counties.
Perry noted that one firefighter has died and 18 others have been injured, while 244 homes have been destroyed and another 8,514 threatened residences "saved."
In the Possum Kingdom complex west of Fort Worth, approximately 90 head of cattle were killed by the fire, said Webb.
In southwest Austin, 10 homes suffered major damage and six suffered minor damage in a 100-acre area, said Matt Curtis, a spokesman for Mayor Lee Effingwell. Curtis said Monday morning that the fire was contained, though firefighters were expected to spend the day looking for potential flareups and hotspots.
Officials were to decide later in the day whether to allow evacuees -- some 50 of whom spent the night at a shelter -- to return home, Curtis said.
"Luckily, this fire happened in a somewhat unpopulated part of that neighborhood," he said. The multi-jurisdictional effort included the Austin Police Department, the Austin-Travis County Fire Department, the Austin-Travis County EMS, the Travis County Sheriff's Department and the Texas Forest Service.
"The mayor, who has lived in Austin all 72 of his years described this as the largest fire he had ever seen in Austin and largest multi-jurisdictional effort," Curtis said.

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