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Can US handle historic Texas wildfires?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry asked President Obama on Sunday for more resources to help quell the 'unprecedented' Texas wildfires. The US Forest Service says it still has resources to spare.

By Staff writer / April 18, 2011

A firefighting plane makes a drop near a destroyed house on Callbram Lane in southwest Austin as Texas wildfires continued to rage on Sunday.

Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/AP

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The wildfires that have consumed 1.6 million acres of Texas plains and pines, threatened its capital, and destroyed 240 homes is stretching, but not yet stressing, the United States' wildland firefighting capability, the US Forest Service says.

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On Sunday, Gov. Rick Perry acknowledged that Texas needs more federal help to deal with the situation, as dozens of fires are now burning largely uncontrolled across the state, including unusual "crown fires" in tops of trees in the east Texas pine barrens that are leaping to 100-foot heights.

"The request for assistance truly is of historic proportions," says Randall Barr, the fire chief of Tomball, Texas, near Houston. "Everybody is stretched, and the conference calls we're on every day paint a bleak picture, with no relief in sight."

Nearly 8,000 fires – ranging from small to vast – have been reported in Texas since the start of the year, as unprecedented dry conditions, large amounts of winter-cured brush and grass as fuel, and howling winds have kept nearly the entire state at risk for "explosive wildfire potential," the Texas Forest Service reports. In the past week alone, wildfires have spread across an area the size of Rhode Island.

"Fronts are coming through the state on a regular pattern, bringing with them strong winds and low humidity," Governor Perry wrote to the White House on Sunday. "Wildland fires occurring under these conditions are generating intensities that are creating very high difficulties of control ... [and] resulting in extreme fire behavior and conditions that threaten any and everything in a fire's path."

State capital threatened

The state reported 20 new fires on Sunday alone, including one near Austin started by a homeless man who went on a beer run, leaving his campfire unattended. Ten homes have been heavily damaged in the fire, which is now 50 percent contained near the Austin city limits.

"Texas certainly planned on fighting some wildfires this year, but we never planned on this type of situation," says Marq Webb, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service, in Merkel. "This is off the charts, unprecedented, we've never seen it this bad. It's a historical time in Texas wildfire history."

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