updated 1/19/2006 9:33:56 AM ET 2006-01-19T14:33:56

Firefighters are expected to remain in place for at least three months in the drought-stricken state as they brace for grassfires that could destroy urban areas or spread quickly through thick East Texas forests.

State and federal emergency officials said Wednesday that prolonged drought, low humidity and high winds in Texas left many areas of North and East Texas vulnerable. Fires spurred by the conditions have already burned 455,127 acres across Texas, destroyed 343 homes and killed three people since late December.

"We're preparing for operations through the end of April; that's not good news," Jack Colley, chief of the governor's Division of Emergency Management, said during a conference call.

Colley said officials are concerned that the large amount of dry vegetation in parts of East Texas create an especially dangerous situation. National Weather Service meteorologist Steve Fano said the area has received less than three-quarters of an inch of rainfall since Dec. 1, and drought conditions were expected to last throughout the winter.

"That's a critical area for us because of the potential to have large forest fires, much like you'd see on the West Coast," Colley said.

He said firefighting planes and crews were positioned throughout threatened areas to keep fires from suburban and urban areas.

"We have aircraft airborne almost all the time" he said, adding that aggressive attacks early on were the best way to contain damage.

"With these winds of 25, 30, 40 miles per hour, when a simple grassfire occurs, that fire will move at that speed — and that speed will increase the intensity of a very small fire, and it will create just a firestorm," Colley said.

He said state and federal officials continued to support volunteer fire departments across Texas, rotating in firefighters from other states to combat exhaustion.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials said its efforts efforts were continuing to help fire victims, while simultaneously working to assist evacuees from the hurricanes that blasted the Gulf Coast and Texas Coast in August and September.

"FEMA is continuing our recovery efforts for Hurricane Katrina and Rita evacuees and providing assistance to wildfire victims," said FEMA coordinating officer Sandy Coachman.

Coachman said FEMA representatives were traveling to fire sites to meet with victims and evaluate their needs, and an emergency hot line was established to help applicants with grant and loan assistance.

But despite government efforts, officials continued to stress the public's role in mitigating the situation by avoiding flammable activities and respecting burn bans.

"The greatest ally you have in this effort is prevention, and that's by the public," Colley said.

While human behavior does often sparks blazes, he said, "the public is also the one that stops fires."

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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