Texas Fires Swallow Part of Panhandle

Wildfires have burned 1,000 square miles of the Texas panhandle since Sunday. The fires are blamed for 11 deaths. Firefighters are relying heavily on air power; a fleet of 26 tanker aircraft is dropping fire retardant on the blaze.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Wild fires in Texas have burned more than 1,000 square miles of grass and brush. The fires have claimed 11 lives since Sunday. Several towns remain evacuated. Crews made progress in bringing the fires under control yesterday, but winds are expected to pick up, and there's no rain in the forecast until this weekend. NPR's Jeff Brady reports from Amarillo, Texas.

JEFF BRADY, reporting:

Outside a hanger at a small airport in Amarillo sits a travel trailer. It's the command center for two of the largest fires in the Texas panhandle. The Borger fire has burned about 450,000 acres, the I-40 fire 350,000 acres. Inside the trailer, incident Commander Shane Brown sits with a cell phone, a lap top, and a worn fold-out map.

Mr. SHANE BROWN (Incident Commander, Amarillo, Texas): The big circles here are the perimeter of my fires. And as you can see the two fires have almost merged together.

BRADY: The circles cover only a small portion of the map, but Texas is a big state. Brown runs his finger along one side of the Borger fire.

Mr. BROWN: This is about 40 mile, or 45 miles long.

BRADY: Just on the north side there?

Mr. BROWN: Yeah, just along the north side.

BRADY: The I-40 fire is 35 miles across. It's burning in grass and brush that's up to four and a half feet tall. Brown says, that fuel and the terrain are causing problems.

Mr. BROWN: It's a long way from being flat, very rolling, deep ravines and canyons that they can't get equipment across. So, we're having a lot of control problems just due to the terrain.

BRADY: Brown relies on a fleet of two dozen air tankers to fight the blaze. Outside, a single engine plane that carries about 750 gallons of red fire retardant is getting ready to leave.

(Soundbite of plane)

BRADY: The bottom of the white plane is smudged red from all the loads it's dropped. Jeff Green is supervising the process of mixing the retardant powder with water. He says the planes are coming in every half hour. It takes only about 10 minutes to fill them up. This time of year, Green is usually on vacation. Fire season starts in mid-April, but this has not been a typical year.

Mr. JEFF GREEN: I was comfortable in my house in Missoula, Montana, and I got a phone call New Year's Eve. An hour and a half later I'm headed to Phoenix to pick up a truck and trailer and come to Amarillo for fires.

BRADY: And you haven't been back?

Mr. GREEN: No, sir, I have not. I've been gone since New Year's Eve. And I'll probably be gone until the end of September.

BRADY: The Southwest is in the middle of one of the most severe droughts on record. Fires have been reported across the region throughout the winter months and may get worse when summer arrives. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Amarillo, Texas.

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