Crews battling wildfire at Brownsville Audubon preserve

 Crews battling wildfire at Brownsville Audubon preserve

11 April 2008

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USA — A wildfire forced firefighters to evacuate staff and visitors at the Sabal Palm Audubon Center east of Brownsville Thursday afternoon.

An air survey determined about 170 acres on and around the 557-acre preserve had burned, said Brownsville Assistant Fire Chief David Hinojosa. The fire was not yet under control, but Hinojosa was optimistic that crews would get the upperhand.

No injuries or damage to buildings at the site popular with birders was reported, Hinojosa said. Fire crews set up a protective perimeter around the historic Rabb Plantation house, which is undergoing restoration on the property.

The Audubon center draws 10,000 visitors per year to its miles of walking trails. It recently received national attention because it could be forced to close if completely isolated on the Mexican side of the planned border fence.

Responding to wildfires was one of the Audubon center’s concerns about the border fence.

The Audubon property and neighboring land hold the last native groves of a sabal palm forest that once blanketed thousands of acres along the banks of the Rio Grande. The palm trees are fairly resistant to fire, Chris Best, state botanist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said recently.

But invasive grasses can provide fuel for wildfires if not aggressively maintained, Best said.

Jimmy Paz, the center’s director, said late last month that the property was very dry, forcing him to pump water from the Rio Grande to raise the water level in the property’s resacas.

Rainfall totals have averaged less than 3 inches since December in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and rainfall has been below normal since August, according to the National Weather Service. The temperature reached 94 degrees in Brownsville Thursday and the wind blew as high as 29 mph.

Brush trucks from the Brownsville Fire Department and the Texas Forest Service, as well as a tanker airplane, were fighting the wildfire, Hinojosa said.

“It hasn’t gotten ahead of us,” Hinojosa said. “We’re doing some quick attacks from the ground and the air.”

Firefighters also were battling blazes in Ector and Andrews counties in West Texas.

Some homes had been destroyed in a fire in Andrews County, said Marq Webb, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service. He did not have details on how many were lost or how big the fire was.

Firefighters were able to contain a blaze that had threatened about 200 homes as well as oil and gas field structures in the Gardendale community in Ector County, Webb said.

Another fire that closed down Interstate 20 for a time and threatened oil and gas field structures covered about 2,500 acres.

High winds were fanning the flames.

“We just need Mother Nature to stop blowing,” Dawn Santiago, a Grandfalls resident, said in a story for Friday’s Odessa American. “It’s putting homes in jeopardy, and these fires are just horrible.”

Odessa Fire Capt. Danny Wyatt said crews were having trouble staying ahead of the fires.

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