No rain coming as Texas wildfire scorches dry, hard-hit area

AP News
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Posted: Oct 15, 2015 9:42 PM
No rain coming as Texas wildfire scorches dry, hard-hit area

SMITHVILLE, Texas (AP) — A wildfire chewing the same Central Texas forestland scorched by a devastating blaze in 2011 slowed dramatically Thursday as improving weather kept the deadly destruction of four years ago at bay.

No rain is in sight to extinguish the latest flare-up that has burned 6 square miles, wiped out roughly three dozen homes and threatened hundreds others. But calming and shifting winds pushed the blaze away from busy neighborhoods in Bastrop County and were far weaker than the 50 mph gusts in 2011 that carried flames over highways and containment lines.

"It's been a good day for firefighting," Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape said.

Fire trucks raced past blackened trees still standing from the fires four years ago. Residents whose houses narrowly escaped destruction in 2011 pleaded with police at barricades for information about their homes' fates this time, but sulked back to their cars with no answers.

"I'm not too happy right now. I want to know if my house is on fire," said Mike Waterman, 35, returning to his Jeep loaded with his wife, three dogs, two cats and a gerbil, all of whom left their house Tuesday. "I'm getting no information."

Bastrop County officials said residents of about 400 homes have been advised to evacuate since the fire began Tuesday. The cause of the blaze is unknown. No deaths or injuries have been reported.

About 25 percent of the fire was contained as of Thursday, after the blaze quadrupled in size in one day. The worst was near the rural ranching community of Smithville, where a sign proudly announces the town as the home of the 1998 Sandra Bullock film "Hope Floats." But the damage so far has paled to the 2011 wildfire that destroyed nearly 10 times as much ground, wiped out 1,600 homes and killed two people.

Still, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and county officials were warning that a threat remained.

"We grieve for the families and the homeowners who are displaced by this," said Abbott, who declared a state of disaster for the county and authorized unspecified extra state resources to fight the fire. "This has to be an echo of a nightmare that they faced just a few years ago."

His news conference ended when the loud thrum of a Chinook helicopter lowered toward the lake behind him to refill giant water bags being used to douse the fire from the air.

Smoke from the wildfire has wafted more than 40 miles east into downtown Austin. Dozens of closed streets reopened by sundown Thursday, and county officials expressed optimism that conditions would remain favorable for firefighters overnight.

The fire was being fueled partly by hot, dry weather. Temperatures approached 93 degrees around Austin on Thursday, flirting with a record high for mid-October. Less than 2 inches of rain have fallen in Bastrop County since July. Highs are expected to drop into the 80s starting Friday, but humidity will remain low, National Weather Service meteorologist Cory Van Pelt said.

About 400 homes and businesses were without power Thursday and Buescher State Park will be closed through Sunday due to the fire threat. Officials said about 50 people stayed in shelters overnight Wednesday, with many others retreating to hotels or the homes of friends.

On a list of burned houses that county officials posted inside a gymnasium in Smithville, Dennis Moninger's address was near the top of the page. He said the fire also destroyed his brother's house nearby.

"He saw the fire jump across the street and onto his property," Moninger said. "It jumped from treetop to treetop."

Forest Service officials say three other wildfires were burning in Texas on Thursday, with 400 acres blackened in Taylor County, 350 acres burned in Ellis County and 1,000 acres scorched in Menard County.

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