Image:
Lm Otero  /  AP
A fresh team of firefighters arrive from the Sequoia National Forest in California and line up to march in and douse hot spots on the fire near Bastrop, Texas, on Friday.
By
updated 9/9/2011 5:06:22 PM ET 2011-09-09T21:06:22

Scorching temperatures, strong winds and dry vegetation are turning Texas wildfires into fast and furious dangers that hop from place to place within hours, even minutes, and give residents little time to flee. Now it's likely to get worse.

Another La Nina weather pattern promises to bring drier, windier cold fronts in the months ahead, setting the stage for even more destructive blazes as the state prepares for autumn — traditionally its busiest wildfire season.

"It's the perfect conditions for a fire storm that just becomes very catastrophic, very intense and very difficult to control," said Doug Piirto, head of the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department at California Polytechnic State University.

The perilous mix has spawned a massive blaze that's destroyed nearly 1,400 homes in the Bastrop area southeast of Austin and nearly 300 others firefighters have battled nonstop since February. Their job has been made more difficult by a historic drought that is dehydrating vegetation — fuel for a fire — and a bubble of high pressure that has brought record-breaking, triple-digit heat to nearly every corner of the state.

Story: Frustrations and progress in historic Texas wildfire

"As long as these conditions exist, the fire forces don't get to take a day off," said Roddy Baumann, a fire behavior analyst from Vancouver, Wash., who has been in Texas since August assisting the state's incident management team. He notes even drought-resistant juniper bushes are dying of thirst, a phenomenon he has never before seen.

The pervasive threat means even places with little history of wildfires have reason to worry. Earlier this week in mostly rural counties northwest of Houston, an area more accustomed to high humidity and monsoon-style rains, blazes fueled by constantly shifting winds destroyed 75 homes.

'You can't outrun the fire'
Wildfires spread at about the rate of sustained wind speeds — about 30 mph at times last weekend when the latest round of fires broke out — and people often miscalculate the time they have to escape.

"You can't outrun the fire," said Jeremy Sullens, a wildfire analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, a conglomeration of federal and state agencies that supports operations nationwide.

Greg Creacy, a wildlife biologist and fire management specialist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said the Bastrop blaze at times spit out embers that landed on dry vegetation a half-mile or more ahead. Even as firefighters made progress and tamped down hotspots Friday, concern lingered about spot flare-ups sparked by floating embers.

Story: Texas sets record for hottest summer in US

Creacy said when embers spark ahead of the fire, the main flame follows behind and merges before sending out more spots "so it's kind of hopscotching along and it gains ground a little more quickly."

"When it's approaching and coming into those neighborhoods, you don't have a lot of time to react. It catches people by surprise," he said. "You have to move quickly to get to your escape route and get out of harm's way, particularly with those spots — you don't want to get trapped with fire in front of you and fire behind you."

Brad Smith, a wildland fire analyst who helps forecast wildfire potential for the Texas Forest Service, said huge blazes can be like hurricanes because their potential can be predicted and a cone can be drawn around high-danger areas.

"What you can't forecast and the big unknown with wildfires is where it's going to occur exactly," Smith said. "In that regards, it's more like a tornado."

Interactive: Texas drought (on this page)

During normal years, Texas' wildfire-friendly conditions reach their peak in November and last roughly through early spring. Last October, by looking at the growing La Nina weather pattern and the large amount of vegetative fuel on the ground, Smith predicted a busy summer wildfire season.

"And we got it," he said. "Now ... with dry winds with dry fronts, if that does happen, it's gonna be another very busy winter for Texas firefighters."

More at stake
It also promises to be rough for residents like Jeff Worrell, who returned to the remains of his home in Bastrop on Thursday. A foundation and brick facade were all that was left of the home he bought four years ago when he moved to Texas from Los Angeles. The strings of Worrell's precious guitars, including one his son bought with money earned sweeping floors at the age of 11, could be seen in the still-hot rubble.

Familiar with the devastation of California wildfires, Worrell had noted the fire hydrant and fire station at the end of the street when he bought his home. But he and others seemed resigned not only to rebuilding from the ruins but accounting for the reality of wildfires as an always-there risk.

PhotoBlog: X marks the spot - charred crossroads near Bastrop

"It's something that everybody has to think about," Worrell said.

Smith and other fire experts said conditions last weekend — when massive counterclockwise wind gusts from Tropical Storm Lee converged over a drought-stricken state with a clockwise flow from a northern front — were highly unusual.

But National Weather Service meteorologist Victor Murphy said it could become more common this winter as parched soil meets the dry, cold air the La Nina is expected to deliver.

Risks are already rising. Temperatures in parts of Texas will rise again next week to the mid-90s and low 100s, Murphy said, dropping already low humidity, "which puts us at risk when the next front comes through."

This year's drought, combined with the hottest June through August in U.S. history, increased the severity and intensity of Texas' wildfires. But other factors, including a massive growth in Texas' population — which has doubled since 1970 — urbanization, the introduction of non-native plants that burn more easily and fewer controlled burns that would help rid highly flammable undergrowth, all play a role in making wildfires larger, more intense and more severe.

"That's what's making this doubly severe," said James Hull, director of the Texas Forest Service for 12 years until retiring in 2008. "No longer are we just burning rural land, trees and forest pastures, but we're burning homes and, unfortunately, people."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Wildfires scorch Texas

loading photos...
  1. Courtney Hughes sits in the car as her family decides where to spend the night as residents along Kickapoo Road evacuate Waller County, Texas, on Wednesday. (Mayra Beltran / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fairchild, Texas, volunteer firefighter Dale Oberhoff gives his wife, Jackie, a kiss on the still smoldering ground after battling a grass fire near Needville, Texas, on Wednesday. (Patric Schneider / The Courier via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A panoramic view taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station shows wildfires burning in Texas on Wednesday. (Nasa / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Firefighters put out hot spots at a grass fire off Foster School Road near Needville, Texas, on Wednesday. (Patric Schneider / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. People walk near a vehicle at an intersection in the fire-ravaged area of Bastrop, Texas, on Wednesday. (William Luther / ASSOCIATED PRESS) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Montgomery, Texas, firefighter Reed Griffith crosses flames south of Todd Mission, Texas, on Wednesday. (Mayra Beltran / Houston Chronicle via P) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An aerial view shows burned houses and trees Sept. 7, east of Bastrop, Texas. Several large wildfires have been devastating Bastrop County for the past three days, but are now 30 percent contained, according to the Texas Forest Service. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Gaye Jaco (back to camera) hugs stepdaughter Jennifer Leaver upon returning to their burned home on the east side of Lake Bastop on Tuesday, Sept. 6, outside Bastrop, Texas. Large large wildfires have been burning through Bastrop County for the past two days, and two people were reported dead Sept. 6. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A burned-out house and cars are seen Sept. 6 near Magnolia. More than 1,000 homes have been destroyed in wildfires across rain-starved Texas, most of them in one devastating blaze near Austin that was still raging out of control. (Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronical via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A statue of a woman holding a water bucket stands in front of the remnants of a burned home on the east side of Lake Bastop on Sept. 6. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Deborah Torkelson consoles her husband, Nathan, as they stand atop their destroyed home on Cardinal Loop in the Bastrop, Texas, Circle D Estates neighborhood on Sept. 6. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A firefighting helicopter loads up with water from a pond at the Lost Pines Golf Club as they fight a fire in Bastrop State Park on Sept. 6. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Ed Leighton looks through a box of papers Sept. 6 in what remains of his home that burned to the ground on Bluejay Road in Bastrop, Texas. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Parts of a car melted in the Bastrop, Texas, Circle D Estates neighborhood on Sept. 6. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Smoke from a wildfire hangs in the sky over Bastrop Sept. 6. Officials hoped that calmer winds would help firefighters battling wildfires that had destroyed about 1,000 homes in Texas and forced thousands of residents to flee. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Massive plumes of smoke block the sky on Highway 71 east of Bastrop on Sept. 5.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Chuck Tomlin uses a shovel to stop a fire in the back yard of a home in Bastrop's Tahitian Village neighborhood on Sept. 5. Tomlin volunteered to knock down flames that were just a few feet from the house of a neighbor he had never met.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Ryan Joseph Terranova packs up his belongings moments before evacuating his home at the Tahitian Village Apartments in Bastrop as a huge fire approaches on Sept. 5.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A plane drops fire retardant on a house in Bastrop's Tahitian Village neighborhood on Sept. 5.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Yolanda Rodriguez, left, comforts neighbor Virginia Esquivel in front of Esquivel's gutted home on Bois D'Arc Lane in Cedar Park on Sept. 4. Two homes on the block were destroyed, and a third was damaged.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Firefighters battle a large wildfire on Highway 71 near Smithville on Sept. 5. A roaring wildfire raced unchecked through rain-starved farm and ranchland in Texas, during a rapid advance fanned in part by howling winds from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. (Erich Schlegel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The chimney of a house remains standing as the rest of the building burns to the ground near Bastrop on Sept. 5. (Mike Stone / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Students from a local 4-H group drop off bottled water for firefighters and displaced residents at Magnolia High School where residents evacuated from their homes near a 300-acre wildfire gathered on Sept. 5. Nearly 8,000 residents in the Magnolia area were evacuated from their homes. (Eric S. Swist / The Courier via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Clarence Hoffman, left, and his son, Allen Hoffman, battle ground flames as they try to prevent the fire from advancing to the home of Patrick McAlister near Bastrop on Sept. 5. (Mike Stone / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. J Cindy Cruz wipes tears from her eyes as Texas Gov. Rick Perry talks with her at Bastrop Middle School in Bastrop on Sept. 5. (Alberto Martìnez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Residents evacuate their animals as a wildfire threatens the area near Sleepy Hollow Road and Post Oak Drive in Conroe, Texas, on Sept. 5. (Karl Anderson / The Courier via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A wildfire burns out of control in Bastrop State Park near Bastrop on Sept. 5. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A large plume of smoke rises from a wildfire as onlookers watch from a hill on Sept. 5, in Bastrop. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Particia Bloodworth-Neville and her daughter Bailey Neville, 12, watch from Bluebonnet Volunteer Fire Station as a wildfire consumes land around their central Texas home on Sept. 5 in Bastrop. (Trent Lesikar / The Daily Texan via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Lone Camp Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Joe Crawford fights a wildfire on Sept. 1 in Graford, Texas. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mike Hester holds a cat he rescued from an area destroyed by a wildfire at Possum Kingdom Lake on Aug. 31. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. An air tanker drops fire retardant on a hot spot at Possum Kingdom Lake on Aug. 31 after a wildfire swept through the area. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer looks over an area destroyed by a wildfire at Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas, on Wednesday, Aug. 31. The wildfire swept through the neighborhood Tuesday, Aug. 30, destroying 25 homes and turning the normally lush landscape into a blackened mess. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Eric Kemper holds a cup which reads 'It's a girl' as he looks through the debris of his home after it was destroyed by fire as wildfires burn out of control near Bastrop, Texas September 6, 2011. Wildfires sweeping across drought-stricken Texas have destroyed more than 1,000 homes and forced thousands of evacuations in the past several days, officials said. The worst of the fires, the Bastrop County Complex fire located about 30 miles/48 km southeast of Austin in the central part of the state, has destroyed up to 600 homes, the most of any single fire in Texas history. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER) (Mike Stone / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Interactive: Texas drought

Video: Texas sets US heat record

  1. Closed captioning of: Texas sets US heat record

    >>> the national weather service said today texas had the hottest summer of any state ever on record. the average temperature was 86.8 degrees, it was hotter and drier than during the dust bowl . we're dealing with the consequences of this extreme weather , the massive wildfires.

    >> reporter: calmer winds and cooler temperatures are giving strike teams a fighting chance along the front lines.

    >> in this stage of the fire, it's critical that we do not allow those hot spots to get larger in size, and cause the fire to kind of wake up again.

    >> reporter: but make no mistake, the wildfires in texas are still far from sleeping. in bastrop, only 30% contained, burning across more than 35,000 acres and today the number of homes destroyed has more than doubled from 576 to almost 1,400 now. but those numbers, the maps and charts don't mean so much for a special group of survivors.

    >> i'm scared.

    >> reporter: this morning, on the doors of the command center , a series of handwritten notes appeared. the crayons and markers painting a picture of the wildfire through the eyes of the children.

    >> the fire came by the house and the house is not getting burned.

    >> reporter: their words are simple but so telling. one of the notes reads, we haven't seen our house in three days, we don't know if you saved it, but thank you for trying. and 4-year-old jessica smith understands that fear.

    >> i'm sad.

    >> reporter: 12-year-old devon davenport tried to stay strong. the hardest loss for devon is his dog.

    >> i couldn't get him out.

    >> reporter: tears are unfortunately the only significant water texas has seen or will see for a while. and that's not nearly enough to stop the fires, but the pain and the damage here continues to grow.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,