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11:17 am
Mon September 5, 2011

High Winds Whip Up Texas Wildfires

Originally published on Mon September 5, 2011 7:03 pm

Dozens of wildfires continued to burn out of control across tinder-dry Texas on Monday as calls went out for off-duty firefighters around the region to report for duty.

The Texas Forest Service reported 56 separate fires on Sunday that had burned some 30,000 acres. Neighborhoods across eastern and central parts of the state were reporting widespread damage.

Authorities said the fires were propelled partly by the high winds brought by Tropical Storm Lee. A late-summer cool front brought winds of 30 to 40 mph to the region, which is already gripped by one of the worst droughts in history.

The National Weather Service said South, Central and East Texas were all under "red flag" warnings for critical fire conditions until late Sunday night.

'We're On Every Fire We Can Possibly Handle'

In the East Texas community of Gladewater, a blaze killed a 20-year-old woman and her toddler daughter who were caught unawares in their mobile home. A longtime Texas sheriff called the Gladewater blaze the fastest-moving fire he has ever seen. Six homes were toppled within minutes, including the mobile home.

"The houses that were in its path on this particular roadway were taken out," Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano said. "There were many other houses that the fire got right up to the porch."

Forest Service officials estimated some 1,400 acres were burned in that area alone, destroying homes, barns and vehicles, and thousands of other acres were scorched in other parts of the state.

"We've completely depleted our resources," Melanie Spradling, a public information officer with the Texas Forest Service, told the Tyler Morning Telegraph. "We're on every fire we can possibly handle and then some."

A late-summer cool front brought winds of 30 to 40 mph to the region, which is already gripped by one of the worst droughts in history.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry cut short a presidential campaign trip to South Carolina to monitor wildfires that are raging in his state.

Multiple Blazes Near Austin

In Central Texas, the wildfire threat was so dire near Austin that the fire department issued a public appeal asking any and all area firefighters to report for duty.

At least seven fires were burning near the state's capital.

The biggest was in Bastrop County, southeast of Austin, where a huge blaze stretching 16 miles long had damaged or destroyed 476 homes as of Monday afternoon and was devouring the pine forests surrounding the town of Bastrop. Five thousand people have been evacuated. The fire has jumped the Colorado River twice and is still uncontrolled.

Air tankers dropped water on the blaze, which has scorched more than 17,500 acres, on Sunday and were expected to be called into action again Monday. Nearly half of the 6,000-acre Bastrop State Park had burned, according to Austin's KVUE-TV.

Dozens of shelters have been set up in the area.

Rochelle Olivares, a volunteer public information officer with the Red Cross of Central Texas, said, "We imagine getting reinforcements from the Red Cross on a state level. It's going to become a disaster relief operation involving state forces."

Buildings Burn In Corsicana

In Corsicana, about 50 miles south of Dallas, a wildfire destroyed eight metal industrial shop buildings. Mayor Chuck McClanahan said fire crews were fighting to keep the flames from reaching wooden structures.

Eight miles south of Corsicana, the roughly 200 residents of Navarro and those living in a rural area outside of town fled for safety because of three separate blazes that had burned some 2,000 acres, Navarro County Judge H.M. Davenport said.

Ronnie Willis, who owns a pasture just east of the Corsicana fire, said embers from the industrial park blaze burned his field and he could only watch as the flames advanced toward two massive indoor arenas he owns.

"My prayer is it doesn't burn up the buildings," he told the Corsicana Daily Sun. "The grass will grow back. If it doesn't hurt an animal or burn up the buildings, we can live through it. I just feel sorry for the people whose businesses are being destroyed."

With reporting from NPR's John Burnett and Emily Donahue of member station KUT in Austin. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.

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