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Texas: From droughts to extreme heat to blazing fires

September 5, 2011

Winds fuel flare-ups in Palo Pinto County, across state

Strong north winds fueled wildfire flare-ups around Possum Kingdom Lake on Sunday and firefighters managed to contain most of them, but the rest of Texas wasn’t as lucky as thousands of acres and hundreds of homes burned in another day of the worst wildfire season in the state’s history.

A wildfire estimated to be 16 miles long near the Austin suburb of Bastrop charred about 14,000 acres Sunday, destroying or damaging an estimated 300 homes.

“It’s catastrophic,” Mark Stanford, fire chief of the Texas Forest Service, said Sunday. “It’s a major natural disaster.”

More than 40 new wildfires were reported to the Texas Forest Service on Sunday as strong winds, low humidity and very dry vegetation left firefighters scrambling to extinguish blazes throughout the state.

“We’re very stretched right now,” Tom Berglund of the Texas Forest Service said Sunday.

As of Sunday afternoon, firefighters still had contained just 75 percent of the Palo Pinto County fire, estimated to have scorched 6,555 acres and destroyed 39 homes near the lake since Tuesday.

Texas 16 in Palo Pinto County was open Sunday. The Cliffs Resort community around Possum Kingdom Lake remained closed, but some residents were allowed under escort by authorities to check on their homes.

Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer said Sunday that authorities would no longer be at the resort community starting today.

Three helicopters with buckets gathered water from the lake, and firefighters raced to flare-ups around the lake for most of Sunday.

“We’ve been very lucky today,” said April Phillips of the Texas Forest Service, who is assigned to the Possum Kingdom Lake area. “I’m surprised it didn’t get any worse because of the winds.”

Phillips said that firefighters had been planning for the strong winds for two days.

Mercer also said that he expected the winds to create problems for the firefighters.

“We thought it was going to be like hell today,” Mercer said. “But it turned out to be a good day for us.”

Donations and help have started to pour into Palo Pinto County for the residents who lost their homes to the wildfires last week.

Tony Greer of McKinney, a Princeton volunteer firefighter, began a relief fund for Possum Kingdom East volunteer firefighter Ed Shelton, whose home burned to the ground as he fought the grass fires last week.

Donations can be made to the Ed and Nancy Shelton Fire Relief Fund at any Wells Fargo bank in North Texas.

“We will probably expand it to help others in that community,” Greer said Sunday.

Greer was motivated to help when he saw television news reports Wednesday of Shelton fighting grass fires as his home was destroyed.

“I knew then I had to help in some way,” Greer said.

While firefighters managed to keep control of wildfires at Possum Kingdom Lake on Sunday, grass fires in other parts of the state were racing across pastures.

A rapidly moving wildfire at Bastrop, where dozens of homes were damaged or burned to the ground, continued to burn out of control late Sunday. Bastrop is about 30 miles southeast of Austin.

Grass fires that started Sunday morning blackened about 3,000 acres in Limestone County just west of Waco.

Wildfires in East and Central Texas forced the evacuations of several homes Sunday.

Since the fire season started in November, firefighters in the state have responded to more than 20,600 wildfires that have scorched more than 3.5 million acres, a state record.

The forecast isn’t good for firefighters throughout the state. Hot and dry conditions are predicted to continue for weeks. As of Sunday, about 81 percent of the state was in exceptional drought, the highest drought category, according to the Texas Forest Service.

This report includes material from The Associated Press and the Austin American-Statesman.

Domingo Ramirez Jr.,

817-390-7763

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