Texas seeks more help as wildfires burn Austin homes

AUSTIN, Texas Mon Apr 18, 2011 12:57am EDT

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AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Texas Gov. Rick Perry sought additional federal help in battling wildfires across his drought-parched state as a woodland blaze gutted at least six homes on Sunday and threatened hundreds more in Austin, the state capital.

An estimated 1.5 million acres of tinder-like brush and grasslands have gone up in flames in Texas since January 1, about half of that during the past week alone under some of the driest conditions in Texas history.

Some 220 homes in all have been lost, according to a letter released on Sunday from Perry to President Barack Obama requesting a federal disaster declaration.

One firefighter was killed on Friday in Eastland, Texas, about 80 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

"As wildfires continue to rage across our state, Texas is reaching its capacity to respond to these emergencies and is in need of federal assistance," the governor said in a statement.

Flames have blazed most fiercely for the past couple of weeks in West Texas, where a dozen wildfires have charred thousands of acres of open rangeland and prompted ranchers to move hundreds of thousands of cattle to safer pastures.

Fires have also forced hundreds of rural Texans from their homes across the state. But Austin, in central Texas, marked the largest and most heavily populated city placed in harm's way so far.

By Sunday afternoon, the blaze there had scorched 80 acres of oak and juniper woodlands in the southwestern corner of the capital, an area called Oak Hill, flanked by residential subdivisions and a community college.

Six to 10 homes were destroyed within hours of the fire's outbreak on Sunday, and about 100 more were evacuated as two U.S. Air Force cargo planes dumped fire retardants over the area, joined by a water-dropping helicopter.

"It does have the chance to get into the canopies of those trees and produce some pretty good flame lengths," Texas Forest Service spokesman Jim Carse told Reuters. "There's hundreds of homes, several different neighborhoods, that are in the area that are threatened."

It was not immediately clear how the fire started.

About 160 miles away in north-central Texas, the town of Strawn, population 764, was evacuated as a 1,000-acre wildfire closed in on the area. More than 30 homes in the area already were destroyed during the past week, fire officials said.

The blaze advancing on Strawn was part of a group of fires that burned 45,000 acres around Possum Kingdom Lake and then merged. Wind-whipped flames had managed to jump portions of the lake, fire information officer Steve Deffibaugh said.

(Corrects location of Austin in 7th paragraph)

(Reporting by Elliott Blackburn; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Bohan)

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