Federal team helping Texas as 2nd firefighter dies

Federal team helping Texas as 2nd firefighter dies

20 April 2011

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USA — Weary firefighters finally got a handle on a massive wildfire spanning three northern Texas counties Wednesday, aided by federal reinforcements and a weather change that brought cooler temperatures and calmer winds.

But some officials cautioned that the improved weather conditions will last for only a few more days, and the biggest help from Mother Nature still has not arrived.

“We really need some rainfall,” said Dan Byrd, a National Weather Service meteorologist working with the Texas Forest Service. “We expect rain in the next few days, but we don’t know if it’ll get on the fires or not.”

Also Wednesday, as a firefighter who died last week after battling a blaze was laid to rest, another died from injuries suffered while battling a wildfire earlier this month in the Texas Panhandle.

The team of federal firefighters and officials from several U.S. agencies — the second one to help with a Texas fire this month — joined local personnel Wednesday, this time to help fight a North Texas blaze that has burned nearly 150,000 acres in the Possum Kingdom Lake area, about 70 miles west of Fort Worth, and joined with several blazes in two other counties.

An inventory conducted Wednesday showed about 160 homes have been destroyed since the fire started a week ago, team spokesman David Boyd said Wednesday night.

Haven Cook, a spokeswoman for the team, said officials at the lake were encouraged because interior areas of the fire were burning out and no longer posed a danger. By mid-afternoon, an evacuation order issued Tuesday night for the nearby city of Palo Pinto was lifted, she said.

Byrd said that the moister air makes containing the fires easier because trees and bushes become less flammable.

Texas Forest Service spokesman Marq Webb said weather conditions Wednesday allowed firefighters to make “great progress” in building containment lines in the North Texas fire because the wind was down and humidity was up. He said the next couple of days are expected to offer similar conditions before hot and dry weather reappears.

“We’re going to have a two- or three-day reprieve and then things start ramping up again,” Webb said.

Wildfires have scorched more than 1.4 million acres in Texas since Jan. 1, according to the Texas Forest Service, including some massive fires still burning. More than 340 people, including firefighters from local departments and federal agencies and troops from the Texas Army National Guard, have battled the blaze that started in the Possum Kingdom Lake area.

Since Sept. 1, the beginning of the state’s fiscal year, the Texas Forest Service owes $36.3 million for firefighting costs, according to Robby DeWitt, the agency’s associate director for finance and administration. Of that, $23.8 million is due the federal government for air support, he said.

Texas has been receiving federal help with West Texas wildfires for more than a week. Personnel from more than a half-dozen federal agencies — including the Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management — have been battling some massive fires, including a 150,000-acre fire in Coke County north of San Angelo.

“More of a federal effort is coming into the state now because of the severity of the fires and the number,” said Bridget Litten, a spokeswoman for that team, adding that fire crews have made progress in containing that fire.

Litten said firefighters have had trouble containing one corner of a 200,000-acre blaze in Jeff Davis and Presidio counties that started nearly two weeks ago, but hoped Wednesday to use a tactic that would stop it by letting it burn to a road.

Earlier Wednesday, nearly 1,000 people mourned Eastland firefighter Gregory Mack Simmons at a funeral service at the Leon River Cowboy Church in Olden, about 100 miles west of Fort Worth. Simmons had been battling a blaze Friday when he and other firefighters fled their fire truck trapped in a pasture, and he died after apparently being hit by a vehicle in the smoky area, , senior State Trooper Phillip “Sparky” Dean said.

On Wednesday morning, Elias Jaquez of Cactus, Texas, died 11 days after he was critically injured fighting a fire about 40 miles north of Amarillo, a spokesman for University Medical Center in Lubbock said.

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