Texas governor asks disaster declaration over wildfires

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 18, 2011 11:18 AM
Texas governor asks disaster declaration over wildfires

By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Texas Governor Rick Perry has requested a Major Disaster Declaration for the entire state, as brush fires which have burned more than 1.5 million areas continued on Monday.

The fires have been whipped by 60-mile-an-hour wind gusts and fueled by brush dried out by record low humidity.

"We've got real strong winds, real dry air, real low humidities. Couple all that with dry fuels, which we have a lot of, and the fires are running pretty hard," Marq Webb of the Texas Forest Service said today.

So far a total of 7,800 separate fires have destroyed 244 homes, including 10 in southwest Austin on Sunday in what is being called the Pinnacle Fire.

Austin Fire Department spokeswoman Michelle DeCrane said on Monday that a 60-year-old man, Michael Weathers, has been charged with arson in connection with that fire and is being held on $50,000 bond.

An arrest affidavit says Weathers had started a cooking fire along US Highway 290 West, which caused the 100 acre Pinnacle fire. When he was arrested, Weathers had singed hair, eyebrows and sideburns, and admitted leaving the campfire unattended with the coals still hot.

In addition to the 10 homes destroyed in Austin, six suffered minor damage, and one Austin firefighter was injured. Some 200 people were evacuated, but officials hope to have them back in their homes by this afternoon.

"The dry conditions and drought we have been suffering make our area ripe for extreme fire danger," Austin Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr said on Monday.

"What we saw yesterday in southwest Austin is something we have been talking about for years in Austin with the wild-land urban interface. Our city has spectacular topography and scenery that homeowners want to take advantage of, but butting homes adjacent to the rural wild land requires extra vigilance to ensure we don't have a repeat of yesterday's fire."

The Forest Service's Webb said brush fires were burning in literally every portion of Texas.

"We have over a million acres in the state of Texas burning all the way from Louisiana to New Mexico in multiple fires which are uncontrolled," he said.

Burn bans are currently in effect in 195 of the state's 254 counties.

The culprit in Texas is a historic lack of rain. State Climatologist John Neilson-Gammon said last month was the driest March in Texas history, and the six months between October and March were among the five driest winters ever recorded.

In north Texas, three large fires have merged near the community of Strawn, west of Fort Worth, scorching 55,000 acres, forcing residents like Tina Thomas to run out of their homes with only the clothes on their backs.

"We're pretty scared," she said. "We've never been in this situation."

"The fire is moving at an incredible rate, it is covering miles within minutes," said Texas State Patrolman Dub Gillum said of the Strawn fire.

Fires are also moving into areas of the state which are unaccustomed to brush fires. A fire has destroyed 3,000 acres in usually damp Hardin and Tyler Counties in the southeast portion of the state, the area known as the 'Piney Woods' for its thick and tall pine forests.

"The winds have not died down like we thought, and Mother Nature has not been cooperative," Gillum said. "It would be nice if we could get some of those April showers. That would sure help."

(Editing by Jerry Norton)