Numerous Texas Wildfires Stretch Firefighters' Ranks

Across Texas, scores of wildfires are burning out of control. A fire near Austin has burned thousands of acres and hundreds of homes. The Texas Forest Service says whatever the highest priority is, that gets the first attention.

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Fires are raging in central and eastern Texas. More than 60 new wildfires have erupted since Sunday and at least two lives have been lost. Near Austin, Texas, authorities have put out a call for any and all volunteer firemen to fight a fire that's burned thousands of acres and destroyed almost 500 homes. The Texas Forest Service says it is stretched to the breaking point and Texas Governor Rick Perry skipped a presidential forum in South Carolina last night to fly back to his home state. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has more.

WADE GOODWYN: Dale Swift and his 12-year-old son stand in the middle of what is left of their home at Possum Kingdom Lake west of Fort Worth. For more than a decade it was their lovely rustic three-bedroom. Now it's nothing.

Mr. DALE SWIFT: It's leveled. It's completely leveled. An aluminum ladder has completely melted into small fibers. I've never seen anything like that. So my son and I, Isaac, are trying to go through some of the ruins and see stuff that's recognizable.

GOODWYN: This is the second major fire at Possum Kingdom Lake. In April, more than 60 homes and thousands of acres burned. This time the fire has taken 40 more homes, many of them large spectacular showpieces. As sad as the loss of property is, what's more tragic is what these fires have done to the beautiful hill country. What used to be a sparsely populated wilderness filled with wildlife, Juniper, oak and cedar, now...

Mr. SWIFT: Looks very much like a moonscape. It's all gray and black and the ashes are just blowing through the wind right now.

GOODWYN: In April, the fires moved slowly if inexorably. Now they move so fast they kill. In Northeast Texas, a young mother and her 18-month-old child were burned to death when they were trapped inside their mobile home.

In Central Texas, southeast of Austin, a fire 16 miles wide and 6 miles long was out of control, scorching much of a state park. It's so hot and moving so fast that fighting it on the ground was deemed too risky. There are so many big fires, 23 and counting, there are simply not enough firefighters and aircraft to go around.

Melissa Stradling(ph) is a fire specialist with the Texas Forest Service.

Ms. MELISSA STRADLING (Texas Forest Service): We honestly do not have anyone else to staff another fire. It's just based on priority. So whatever the highest priority is, then they're getting the first attention and then we move on from there.

GOODWYN: The calamity is worsened by two weather events that are producing high winds. Sunday night a cold front blew through Texas and dropped the temperatures from the hundreds into the 80s. And off to the east, Tropical Storm Lee blasted into Louisiana.

Jason Dunn is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth.

Mr. JASON DUNN (Meteorologist, National Weather Service): North Texas and Central Texas, particularly down around the Austin area, they were kind of squeezed between both of those systems. So the winds were out of the north and they were really gusty. We had some gusts up to 45 miles an hour.

GOODWYN: The drought has been so dire that much of Texas has begun to pray for rain. Instead they got wind. Doug Brown lost his house in North Texas. It was called the Texas Flag house because the original owners, in 1982, painted a huge Texas flag across its large metal roof. That roof didn't save Brown's house, though. It burned so hot even the concrete foundation was ruined.

Mr. DOUG BROWN: It looks like a nuclear bomb went off. In these cedar and juniper trees there's an oil in the wood that burns, and it's like turpentine. So when it catches on fire, it's like an oil fire.

GOODWYN: Firefighters across Texas have been activated and air tankers are being flown in from as far away as South Dakota.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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