LUBBOCK, Texas — Firefighters in drought-stricken Texas battled 14 major wildfires on Tuesday and braced for dangerously dry and windy weather conditions on Wednesday.
Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday flew over a part of West Texas where a combination of extreme drought and winds have caused fires in recent days that have killed livestock, burned homes and drawn in crews and equipment from around the state and across the country.
"The devastation of the landscape here is awful to witness, as is the pain felt by families who have lost so much in a very short time — much of which is simply irreplaceable," Perry said, according to a copy of prepared remarks for a speech he gave on Tuesday in the small town of Merkel.
"For ranchers and farmers, the land is their livelihood, and they're facing a long way back from this catastrophic damage."
Since wildfire season began in mid-November, nearly 1 million acres have burned in Texas and more than 200 homes have been destroyed, the governor's office said. In the past week, more than 330,000 acres have burned, Perry said.
State crews are supporting local efforts to fight 14 major wildfires in 19 West Texas counties.
The National Weather Service warned that strong winds and low humidity in the Texas Panhandle "will create extremely critical fire weather conditions in the area" through Wednesday, according to the governor's office. The forecast includes sustained winds of 20 to 25 mph with gusts up to 35 mph.
Perry issued an emergency disaster proclamation on Dec. 21 and renewed it most recently on March 18.
"For those who are displaced by this disaster, we will stand by you and will assist you in the recovery to get you back on your feet," Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, who joined Perry on the tour, said in a statement.
Earlier, firefighters said they had one blaze mostly contained but an even larger fire remained at just 10 percent containment and more crews were brought in to fight it.
Texas crews have gotten reinforcements from out of state as they struggled against some of the worst wildfire conditions in state history.
One firefighter was in critical condition at a Lubbock hospital with severe burns suffered while fighting a Panhandle wildfire, officials said.
Powerful winds that sent walls of flame through parched ranchland in and around the West Texas communities of Fort Davis and Midland, incinerating more than 60 homes during the weekend and killing livestock and horses, took pity by directing the fires to largely unpopulated open spaces north and east of the cities.
An overnight thunderstorm — a rare occurrence of late, with the state coming off its driest March since 1895 — gave crews the break they needed to begin containing a wildfire that had scorched about 110 square miles of rolling prairies about 175 miles west of Fort Worth.
The Swenson fire was 80 percent contained by Tuesday morning.
But the slightly larger Rockhouse fire, which started Saturday near Marfa and spread towards Fort Davis, was still only 10 percent contained.
Rain from last summer's Hurricane Alex led to particularly lush vegetation growth, said Mark Stanford, the operations director for the Texas Forest Service. A cold winter and the drought killed off much of that growth, and with fewer cattle grazing on Texas pasturelands, the dried remains have provided a perfect fuel for wildfires to consume, he said.
Thus far this year, the Forest Service and fire departments have responded to 654 fires that have burned 916 square miles of land and destroyed 189 homes.
That's a far cry from March 2006 — when wildfires burned more than 3,000 square miles, destroyed 413 homes and killed 12 people in the deadliest wildfire month in state history. But Stanford said current wildfire conditions are even worse than five years ago.
"We're in new territory because it's drier than it has been for '06, '08 and '09, but there is more fuel to burn," Stanford said.
The parched conditions are expected to last for several days, at least, but the 30-40 mph winds that have been fueling the western blazes are expected to drop into the teens and low 20s, he said.
"And that makes a huge difference," Stanford said.
It'll be too late for those who watched the terrifying, fast-moving fires sweep through their West Texas communities on Saturday and Sunday.
"It was unbelievable, just horrific. There were horses on fire, buildings on fire, houses on fire," said Bob Dillard, a former Jeff Davis county judge and editor of the weekly Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch.
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