published Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Fierce wildfires ravage Texas

“Everything is bigger in Texas” is a colloquial phrase that is prompted by the physical size of the state and the bigger-than-life outlook of some of its residents. There is, of course, considerable debate about the veracity of that statement, but events currently unfolding in Texas suggest that the statement is true in at least one respect. A two-week plague of still-expanding wildfires racing across the state already has consumed vast amounts of acreage. The situation is likely to get worse. Worried officials are unsure when containment will be achieved.

There is considerable reason for concern. Fires have been reported in all but two of the state’s 254 counties, according to officials, and more than a million acres have gone up in flames. In the last week, more than 1,000 square miles have burned — an area, if combined, that is about the size of Rhode Island.

For the most part, the wildfires have ranged across ranchland and other open country. One blaze did encroach on an Austin suburb. Another, 70 miles from Dallas-Forth Worth, nearly doubled in size to about 150,000 acres over Monday night. Each of those fires destroyed or damaged numerous homes and other structures. No area is truly safe. Some rural communities have reported damage as well.

So far, the locations of the fires have helped to limit property damage, though the cost is climbing. Still, battling the fires is a formidable task. One front-line firefighter said that the work was “very dangerous. I’ve never seen anything like this in Texas.” Somber state officials confirm his view.

At least one of the major fires currently burning was started by an alleged arsonist who was arrested near Austin. Others started naturally. Some of the fires were reported controlled Tuesday, many others were not. Air National Guard units from California, Wyoming and North Carolina that fly and maintain huge C-130 planes with specialized equipment to battle wildfires have now augmented the work of more than 1,400 men and women on the ground. Even so, the equipment and personnel engaged in the effort to control the fires seem overmatched.

Fire-fighting efforts are hampered, too, by hot, dry and windy weather more common to summer than spring. A forecast of some thunderstorms across the state is a mixed blessing. The rain would be a welcome in helping to douse the blazes, but the possibility of lightning strikes that could spark fierce fires in already parched scrub country is a cause for worry.

Thankfully, no lives have been reported lost in Texas, but that can change in a moment. Awareness of conditions favorable to wildfires, understanding rules that help prevent them and a readiness to act if a blaze erupts are essential to coping with the unpredictable nature of wildfires. Those rules are the same in Texas and in Tennessee and Georgia, smaller states where fire season is approaching quickly.

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