Texas wildfire chief: Wildfires still raging, but 'we are making successes'

A break in the weather allowed firefighters to gain some ground against the historic Texas wildfires. But the battle against 22 major wildland fires has been 'problematic,' says Mark Stanford, fire operations chief of the Texas Forest Service.

LM Otero / AP
A wildfire threatens a house near Possum Kingdom, Texas, April 19. On Wednesday, federal firefighters joined the fight against massive wildfires west of Dallas-Fort Worth. Statewide, the wildfires have burned more than one million acres across bone-dry Texas in the past two weeks, affecting all but two of the state's 254 counties.

A federal wildfire strike team swooped into central Texas Wednesday to help stanch a massive wildfire west of Dallas, attesting to the precariously "fluid" situation on the ground as dozens of massive conflagrations, 90 percent of them human-caused, thunder across the bone-dry Lone Star State.

"We're responding to 22 fires, major significant fires, that are burning over a million acres," Mark Stanford, fire operations chief of the Texas Forest Service, told the Monitor. "It's very fluid. We'll contain some and we'll get new ones. A handful of them are problematic, although we are making successes on them."

Those successes include nearly 8,000 fires put down earlier this season. Another cause for hope came from a low-pressure front that moved in Wednesday, cooling much of the state by nearly 30 degrees, settling the winds, and introducing some much-needed atmospheric moisture, if not always rain.

That moisture gives firefighters a chance to attack stubborn blazes like the so-called PK Complex west of Dallas/Fort Worth, the remote Rockhouse fire in west Texas, and the Wildcat fire near San Angelo. The break in the weather allowed firefighters "great progress" Wednesday in building containment lines, the Texas Forest Service said.

And this season's fires have claimed fewer lives than many feared. While 22 people, 21 of them civilians, died during the drought-driven 2008 Texas wildfire season, the fight against this year's bigger fires has resulted in only three casualties so far.

It's been a battle of stops, starts, ducks and parries for the 1,814 firefighters from 36 states, dozens of aircraft, and hundreds of pumpers and bulldozers fighting up to 40-foot flames that have at times raced the distance of a football field in a minute. Ten towns and dozens of neighborhoods have been evacuated, often for short periods, as a precaution against the unpredictable blazes affecting 252 out of Texas' 254 counties.

Hobbling the effort have been winds that have stymied some of the firefighters' best offensive weapons. A squadron of heavy air tankers can't lift off if winds top 35 miles per hour.

"During the peak [fire] period, noon to about 6 p.m., our aircraft are often grounded," says Mr. Stanford. "At that point, there's not really much we can do on the spreading head of the fire, so we go defensive. We evacuate citizens, we protect their homes and try to protect their homes, attack the flanks of the fire. The head of the fire is like a tornado, there's nothing to stop it."

Worsening the situation is a legacy of hurricane Alex. The hurricane soaked much of the state last August, sparking late-summer vegetation on the high plains. Most of that scrub dried out through the winter, leaving a blanket of accelerant that "will – not can – ignite" on any spark, says Marq Webb, a Texas Forest Service spokesman.

"The vegetation is the driest on record," says Stanford, the state's top wildland firefighter. "So when you have fuels that are dried to summer levels and the normal spring wind events, it creates a nexus that's causing fire intensities, on the worst days, that are a force of nature."

That includes places like Tyler County, in usually-humid southeast Texas, where a 7,000-acre fire is burning. "Normally by this time of the year, east Texas has greened up and will not burn – you can't make it burn," Webb told Reuters. "But we're having trouble with actual crown fires in our Piney Woods that are very unusual."

As the situation worsened this week, a federal wildfire strike team arrived in the state, for the second time this year, to relieve crews near Possum Kingdom Lake, a populous lakeside hideaway. The so-called PK Complex fire there has burned 208,000 acres, scorched 160 homes (including two churches), and remains only 25 percent contained.

The total number of homes lost statewide reached 370 on Wednesday. Though firefighters have saved over 8,000 threatened homes so far, Stanford says every home lost takes a toll on residents and firefighters alike.

"The thing that's so tragic to me in losing a home to a wildfire is that typically you're not able to take much with you," he says. "You lose your family's memories, family's history, heirlooms that are passed down generationally – it's an emotional situation."

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