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Tx wildfires strain resources

Faith-based organizations focus on ways to help survivors of massive fires

BY JOHN PAPE | HOUSTON, TX | September 9, 2011

"We're getting incredible support from all over the country, federal and state agencies"

—Mark Stanford, Texas Forest Service

More than 1,300 homes have been lost and four people have died as wildfires continue to burn across Texas.

Many of the fires started over the Labor Day weekend as high winds from Tropical Storm Lee combined with low humidity levels and tinderbox conditions brought on by the year-long drought.

As many as 64 large wildfires were being actively worked, straining federal, state and local fire resources. Likewise, faith-based organizations and other aid agencies scrambled to provide emergency shelters for literally thousands of residents forced to flee the advancing flames.

One of those groups, the Week of Compassion, said Thursday it had been in touch with regional offices and its ecumenical partners at Church World Service (CWS) and is prepared to respond to needs emerging from congregations of the Christian Church and will work with CWS partners in a larger ecumenical response.

According to the state, Texas Forest Service Crews had responded to 172 fires in the past seven days, consuming 135,051 acres. In addition, local fire departments handled 188 fires that burned 4,584 acres.

The two largest fires were the ongoing Bastrop Fire just west of Austin and the Riley Road Fire covering a three-county area on the northwest side of Houston.

In the massive Bastrop blaze, firefighters slowly began to gain ground Wednesday afternoon after more than four days of fighting the 34,000-acre fire that forced the evacuation of more than 5,000 people. Fire officials announced the fire was about 30 percent contained.

The Bastrop blaze has already killed two people and claimed 785 homes, the most houses ever destroyed by a single fire in Texas history, the Texas Forest Service said Wednesday morning. Authorities have released no information on the fatalities other than to say they were not emergency service personnel.

The state’s other two fire fatalities were in a separate wildfire in Smith County in east Texas.

Following the discovery of the fatalities, Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced the deployment of Texas Task Force 1, the state's elite search team, to Bastrop. Perry also urged residents in threatened areas to obey all evacuation orders and register with the American Red Cross’ Safe and Well program.

“These fierce fires near Bastrop have now become even more heartbreaking, as local officials today confirmed two deaths in the Bastrop area. To further support local efforts, I have requested that Texas Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd deploy our state's elite wide area search team, Texas Task Force 1,” Perry said. “I cannot emphasize enough to Texans in the impacted areas the importance of heeding all warnings from local officials, especially evacuation orders, as these fires are mean, swift and highly dangerous.”

Texas Task Force 1 is a 600-member force nationally recognized for its unique search, rescue and recovery capabilities. It was deployed to New York City following the terrorist attack on 9/11, and to New Orleans following the landfall of Hurricane Katrina.

The task force joined more than 400 local, state and federal firefighters already on the fire lines. Many of the crews responded from out of state after Texas authorities put out a call for assistance.

In addition to the fire crews, a large number of aircraft were mobilized to assist with the heavy fire activity. Six heavy air tankers, three 1,500-gallon scoopers, 15 single-engine air tankers, 12 helicopters, and 12 aerial supervision aircraft were being used to fight the flames.

Eight National Guard Blackhawk and three Chinook helicopters provided aerial support and an additional 12,000-gallon DC-10 air tanker will be activated Friday morning at the Austin-Bergstrom Airport.

A Type I Incident Management Team was in place in Bastrop as of Wednesday morning and assisting the Texas Forest Service in managing the fire. Additional Type 1 teams have been requested to assist with other large fires in northeast and southeast Texas.

"We're getting incredible support from all over the country, federal and state agencies," said Mark Stanford, operations director for the Texas Forest Service.

In addition to the homes and private property consumed by the flames, the wildfire also decimated one of Texas’ most popular state parks. The Bastrop State Park, known for its famous Lost Pines habitat, historic Civilian Conservation Corps and the endangered Houston toad was reported to have been almost completely burned. Park officials estimated just 100 of the park’s 6,000 acres survived.

The historic refractory, a post-Depression era structure built by the CCC and one of the park’s landmarks, was spared from the flames. When the blaze got within 200 yards of the refractory, two Chinook helicopters under contract to the Texas Forest Service flew dozens of sorties over the park, dumping tons of water taken from a small lake on the park’s golf course and halting the fire’s advance.

Nearby Buescher State Park was closed, but remained unharmed.

Near Houston, fire officials on Wednesday reported the fast-moving Riley Road Fire was 80-85 percent contained, but thousands remain evacuated as firefighters continued to battle flames across three counties.

So far, some 8,000 acres across Waller, Grimes and Montgomery counties have been consumed by the fast-moving blaze. More than 40 fire departments from across the region were helping to extinguish the blaze.

Most of the damage appeared to have occurred in Waller County, where as many as 100 homes had been damaged or destroyed. In Montgomery County one home and one mobile home were reported burned, along with an undetermined number of outbuildings. In Grimes County, at least one home was burned. Additionally, one fire truck was lost battling the fire in Grimes County.

Lt. David Park with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office said fire crews were making every effort to save residents’ homes.

“We’re doing everything we can to protect their property,” Park said.

In nearby Colorado County west of Houston, fire crews continue to douse hot spots and problem areas from another Labor Day weekend wildfire that consumed roughly 2,000 acres, destroying 11 homes and 40 outbuildings. In addition, four homes were damaged and an estimated 38 vehicles were lost.

Other active major wildfires reported by the Texas Forest Service included:

Halsboro Complex Fire, Red River County. 950 acres, unknown containment. The fire was burning in grass. Fifteen homes are threatened, but none reported lost.

Fire #510, Rusk County. 400 acres, unknown containment.

Pedernales Bend (Spicewood), Travis County. 6,500 acres, 80 percent contained. The fire was burning four miles southeast of Spicewood. Sixty-seven homes were destroyed.

Bear Creek, Cass County. 14,000 acres, unknown containment. The fire was burning in heavy timber and threatening a gas facility and chicken houses. Six homes had been destroyed.

Tamina Road, Montgomery County. 150 acres, unknown containment. Hundreds of homes were evacuated Monday evening, but none was reported lost.

Union Chapel, Bastrop County. 912 acres, 20 percent contained. Twenty-five homes were destroyed just west of Bastrop. Aircraft responded immediately after the fire was reported, but were ineffective in the windy conditions.

Moonglow, Williamson County. 75 acres, 95 percent contained. The fire was burning in Leander where 150 homes were threatened. Thirteen homes were reported lost.

Peters Chapel, Harrison County. 650 acres, 80 percent contained. The fire was burning actively in pine plantation. Numerous homes had been evacuated. There were no reports of losses.

Steiner Ranch, Travis County. 125 acres, 40 percent contained. The fire started just north of the Steiner Ranch subdivision. More than 1,000 homes were evacuated. Thirty-five homes were destroyed.

Henderson #495, Anderson County. 5,000 acres, unknown containment. Three homes were saved.

Fire #491, Limestone County. 3,000 acres, 90 percent contained. Six homes were saved and one was lost on this fire 20 miles east of Waco.

Delhi, Caldwell County. 6,000 acres, 60 percent contained. Twenty homes were saved and six were lost.

Bailey, Colorado County. 2,300 acres, 75 percent contained. The fast-moving fire threatened 40 homes near Columbus. Ten homes were destroyed.

Diana #545, Upshur County. 2,500 acres, 70 percent contained. The fire was burning in grass and timber. Twenty homes were threatened.

Lutherhill, Fayette County. 2,700 acres, 95 percent contained. The community of Ruttersville was evacuated. Fourteen homes were destroyed.

Bonbiew Ranch, Van Zandt County. 350 acres, 80 percent contained. Twenty homes were saved southeast of Canton.

Moore, Smith County. 1,500 acres, 90 percent contained. Ten homes were evacuated and five were lost. Two civilian fatalities were reported.

Boot Walker #553, Marion County. 2,000 acres, unknown containment. Thirty homes were threatened.

Toad Road #552, Upshur County. 350 acres, unknown containment. The fire was burning in timber. Three homes were lost and dozens remained threatened.

Hopewell #854, Walker County. 1,000 acres, 90 percent contained. Thirty homes were evacuated, five homes were destroyed.

Fire #507, Anderson County. 1,400 acres, unknown containment.

Fire #504, Anderson County. 800 acres, unknown containment.

Fire #502, Nacogdoches County. 4,000 acres, unknown containment. More than a dozen homes were evacuated but none lost.

Arbor, Houston County. 3,000 acres, 90 percent contained. The fire was burning in timber. Up to 15 homes were reported lost.

Kennedy Road, Rusk County. 150 acres, unknown containment. Numerous homes threatened, one lost.

Pettytown, Caldwell County. 200 acres, 95 percent contained. Twenty homes were saved east of Lockhart.

Old Magnolia, Gregg County. 1,000 acres, 80 percent contained. Several structures and a gas plant were threatened. Two fuel tanks exploded.

Fire #839, Leon County (Concord Robbins). 4,000 acres, unknown containment. An estimated twenty homes were reported lost and more than 300 were evacuated.

101 Ranch, Palo Pinto County. 6,555 acres, 85 percent contained. The fire was burning on the south side of Possum Kingdom Lake near the town of Brad. Thirty-nine homes and nine RVs were reported destroyed.

The Texas Forest Service classifies major fires as those involving more than 100 acres of timber, more than 300 acres of lighter fuel or where homes were lost.

The most recent outbreak of wildfires in the Lone Star State was just the latest in a year fire officials are calling one of the worst for fires in state history. Officials said 2011 would go down as the most expensive wildfire season on record, with the price tag still climbing.

The Texas Forest Service said Wednesday that fighting wildfires had cost an estimated $61.5 million in the past few months alone. That total was in addition to the $121 million lawmakers gave the agency in June to help pay for wildfires earlier this spring.

Robby Dewitt, the forest service's finance official, said it was the most Texas has spent on wildfires since records started being kept in the mid-1990s.

Dewitt said at least $33.5 million in federal grants is expected to help offset costs.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday that 53 fire assistance grants authorized for Texas this year is one short of the record set in 1996.

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