Heat, gusty winds fuel renewed fears in fire-weary Texas

SAN ANTONIO Sat Sep 24, 2011 9:09pm EDT

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SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Triple-digit temperatures and gusty winds in Texas on Saturday heralded the possible return of the dangerous conditions that sparked devastating brush fires earlier this month, officials said.

Wildfires have charred 3.8 million acres in the state and destroyed 2,742 homes since the current wildfire season began last November, and the months of June through August in Texas were the hottest ever recorded by any state in U.S. history.

"People need to be aware of how critical a situation this is, particularly with vegetation that is so dry," Tom Spencer, head of the Texas Forest Service's forecasting division, told Reuters on Saturday.

"It is very easy for a fire to start, spread, and get out of hand," he said.

This past week, hundreds of firefighters who have converged on Texas received a brief break from the fire lines due to scattered rains and colder temperatures that dampened blazes. But the respite will likely end this weekend, Spencer said.

A weather front moving across the state was generating the same strong winds that blew a pine tree into power lines east of Austin on September 4, sparking a 35,000-acre brush fire, said Holly Huffman, spokeswoman for the Texas Forest Service.

That blaze destroyed nearly 1,600 homes, killed two people and ranks as the most damaging fire in the state's history.

On Sunday, temperatures in Austin were expected to hit 103 degrees Fahrenheit, with winds blowing at 15 to 25 miles per hour and gusts of 30 mph, according to the Weather Channel.

Texas has experienced epic heat since May, and Huffman said the "unrelenting drought" increases the danger from the gusty winds that are now blowing in the state.

The blazes have devastated farms and ranches, stretched firefighting budgets to the limit and killed thousands of heads of livestock.

Blazes fueled by gusty winds earlier this month in east Texas destroyed 175 million cubic feet of timber as flames ripped through a tree-covered region known as Piney Woods.

Forest Service economist Chris Edgar said the lost timber would have produced $1.6 billion worth of products, from plywood to packing products to paper.

Several recording artists, including Willie Nelson, the Dixie Chicks, and Asleep at the Wheel, have agreed to perform at a concert in Austin next month to raise money for rebuilding parts of nearby Bastrop County that were damaged by wildfires.

"I called Willie up and he canceled a show in Ohio so he could make this," said Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson, who is helping organize the benefit concert.

"It was easy to get people to agree to do this," he said.

(Editing by James B. Kelleher, Alex Dobuzinskis and Cynthia Johnston)

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