Texas firefighters race against clock to beat fires

SAN ANTONIO Sun Apr 24, 2011 9:36pm EDT

1 of 4. Texas Dept. of Public Safety officers block the road leading to the out of control wild fires in Palo Pinto County, Texas April 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Tim Sharp

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SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Hundreds of weary firefighters were racing against the clock on Sunday, pushing back massive brush fires that have destroyed near-record swatches of Texas countryside.

Fire fighters were hoping to make as much progress as possible before low humidity and strong winds set the stage for more potential flare-ups late Monday and Tuesday.

"We have gotten rain, but more importantly, we have gotten moister air, and that has been very, very helpful," Marq Webb, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service, said on Sunday.

Webb said the amount of acreage burned in Texas in 2011 is almost at the record level set in 2006, when nearly 2 million acres were burned by wildfires. So far this year, more than 1.8 million acres have burned.

"We're only in April, with some of the worst wildfire months still to come," he said. "We will certainly break that record."

Rudy Evanson of the National Park Service, part of an army of more than 450 firefighters who are working to beat back the PK Complex fire west of Fort Worth, said that although the area got rain Saturday night, "it didn't last long enough to get the dirt wet."

Seeds of more fires may have already been sown by lightning that accompanied the storms, said David Boyd, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service.

"It's not uncommon for the lightning to hit, and it doesn't necessarily start a fire right away," Boyd said. "It will kind of sit there, smolder there," Boyd said.

But more favorable weather conditions have allowed fire fighters to push the PK Complex fire, which has destroyed more than 150 homes, to about 50 percent contained, or twice the amount of containment reported on Saturday.

Webb said there is no longer any visible fire in the PK Complex blaze, which has destroyed 147,000 acres. That estimate was lowered by the U.S. Forest Service from more than 230,000 acres previously reported after completion of an updated aerial GPS survey of the region.

As the fire recedes, the full extent of the damage done to prime Texas cattle grazing country by the raging wildfires will become more clear.

"A lot of the ground has completely been scorched, and a lot of the cattle cannot be fed anymore, so neighbors have been coming in with straw and other food for the cattle so the livestock will be able to survive for a little while," U.S. Rep. Francisco Canseco, who represents much of West Texas, said on Sunday.

Eldon White, chief executive of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, said ranchers managed to rescue most of their cattle. But he said the loss in out-buildings, fencing and valuable grazing land will be devastating.

"It's going to be a significant financial burden on the ranchers," he said. "It's going to take some time for them to recoup and recover."

High fuel prices, shortages of hay and diminished herds have already pushed up the price of beef. The Texas wildfires have potential to place more upward pressure on beef prices.

Texas State Climatologist John Nielson-Gammon said the fires are due to a historic drought gripping the state.

March was the driest March ever recorded in Texas, and the six-month period between October 1 and March 31 was among the five driest winters ever recorded, he said.

Webb said the firefighters -- from nearly every county in Texas, a half-dozen federal agencies, and 33 states -- know that Sunday was a lull before the weather gets more difficult.

"We are trying hard to get these things buttoned up in preparation for the next weather event," Webb said. "We are looking at winds gusting up to 50 miles per hour by Tuesday, humidity back way down into the single digits. We're trying to get these put away, because it's going to get bad again on Tuesday."

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Peter Bohan)

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