USA — In a dry spell unseen since 1895, Texas added 24 new wildfires burning 1,154 acres to a disaster that has so far torched more than 1,000 homes, the state’s Forest Service said Saturday.
In all, Texas has experienced 179 fires over 170,686 acres the past week, the service said. The past 10 months have been the driest in Texas since 1895, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said.
The destruction toll prompted President Barack Obama on Friday night to declare that a major disaster exists in Texas.
Firefighters reported gains, however, in battling the most damaging of the disasters Saturday: containment of the 34,068-acre Bastrop County Complex fire near Austin was improved to 50% from 30%, officials said.
Added Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald at a Saturday press conference: “This time is trying, but we’re going to make it through.”
Officials Saturday warned residents to stay out of affected areas until infrastructure is proven safe. “While the fire moved fast the process of recovery will not be as fast,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson.
Bastrop Mayor Terry Orr said affected residents may not be able to go home for about a week.
McDonald also announced the reopening of state Highway 71. Authorities said 182 vouchers were issued so victims can move from shelters to hotels during the rebuilding process.
In the wake of the fire, two people were found dead this week during searches of the charred subdivisions, the Texas Forest Service said. One person was identified Saturday as Vickie Keenan, 58, said Bastrop County Sheriff Terry Pickering.
The fire has destroyed an estimated 1,386 homes in Bastrop County; crews have confirmed the destruction of 622 of those homes, McDonald said.
The Bastrop County Complex fire now includes the 719-acre Union Chapel wildfire, but on Saturday morning, all Union Chapel residents were allowed to return to their homes, officials said. The Union Chapel fire was 90% contained Saturday, officials said.
While crews sought control over the fire’s perimeter, an infrared flight over the burn area Friday night showed interior hot spots where surviving vegetation has caught fire, said Jack Horner, spokesman for the federal Southern Area Incident Management Team, one of 17 national fire teams for federal lands.
“We’re still fighting the fire and saving houses within the perimeter of the fire,” Horner said. “The fire didn’t burn all of the vegetation, and now that the winds have picked up again, the embers come loose, and the remaining vegetation catches fire and threatens other houses.
“So it’s not over. There are a lot of hazards out there. We have stump holes still burning, and we have crews in there trying to put the smoke out,” Horner said.
The biggest surface-area fire now raging in Texas is the 49,997-acre Bear Creek fire, which has been less damaging than the Bastrop County Complex fire and has destroyed 24 homes just southeast of Linden, the forest service said.
But the Bear Creek fire is burning heavy timber and threatening more homes; the flames are only 30% contained as heavy airtankers and scoopers are assisting crews, state officials said.
Elsewhere in the state, authorities report 30% containment of the 21,269-acre Riley Road fire in Grimes, Montgomery and Waller Counties, the forest service said Saturday. Fifty-eight homes have been destroyed in the disaster, and a DC-10 airtanker dropped five loads of retardant, or 67,000 gallons, officials said Saturday.
The state’s daily summary of the wildfires provides a long toll of destroyed homes. For example, as of Saturday, the 6,500-acre Pedernales Bend (Spicewood) fire in Travis County has consumed 67 homes but is 95% contained. The 6,555-acre 101 Ranch fire in Palo Pinto County torched 39 homes and nine RVs and is 85% contained, the forest service said.
The president’s disaster declaration makes federal aid available to Texas and federal funding available to Bastrop County residents affected by the fire.
“Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster,” the White House said in a statement.
The declaration comes after Lt. Gov. Dewhurst expressed frustration with the lack of response from the federal government as the fires consumed hundreds of houses.
Dewhurst had said he got no response to a statewide disaster declaration request earlier this week. So he has signed another one to drive the point home. Dewhurst is acting governor while Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican presidential candidate, travels.
“We need help yesterday,” Dewhurst said earlier Friday.
Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel were in Bastrop County, state officials said Saturday.
The Bastrop County Complex fire has turned parts of the county into a nearly post-apocalyptic scene.
“Utility poles are still burning, stumps are still burning, wire is hanging through the air with only half a pole, swinging. Lines are on the ground,” said Mark Rose, general manager of Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative.
Residents are increasingly frustrated over not being allowed back into the fire zone to survey their property, McDonald said.
But the main priority is making sure no one else dies from the fire, he said.
Since January 1, state and local firefighters and crews from across the country have battled 18,887 wildfires over more than 3.5 million acres in Texas, according to state officials.