Gov. Rick Perry took to the air Tuesday to survey some of the ravaged counties of West Texas devastated by wildfires that have blackened tens of thousands of acres, destroyed dozens of homes and left one firefighter critically injured.
Perry flew in a plane over fires still burning in the rolling plains of Stonewall County with state emergency management chief Nim Kidd before appearing at a news conference at a Texas Forest Service command center in the town of Merkel in Taylor County.
Perry, who grew up near the Stonewall County fire, said that even as firefighters gained the initiative on some of the biggest fires, "Our experience tells us that we have a long way to go."
"The threat of wildfires is one we've lived with consistently for months, and I urge Texans to continue heeding all warnings from fire and local officials and to take whatever precautions necessary to minimize the risk of wildfire."
State crews are supporting local efforts to fight 14 major wildfires in 19 West Texas counties. He said that every year, his team gets "a little better at dealing with natural disasters." But he appealed to Texans "to continue to be very cautious" with fire.
Thousands of acres destroyed
Nearby Tom Green County has lost 11,000 acres to the flames, while nearly 17,000 acres have burned in Midland County and more than 103,000 acres in Stonewall, Knox and King counties. Another blaze that erupted in Presidio County destroyed 40 homes in neighboring Jeff Davis County over the weekend.
Firefighters got the 108,000-acre Presidio County fire 60 percent contained Tuesday.
Before going to West Texas, Perry prefaced a speech to a free enterprise group in Dallas with praise for firefighters.
"Our state is really blessed to have brave men and women who never hesitate to run toward great danger that others are fleeing," Perry said.
Perry on Sunday renewed a disaster proclamation for 249 of the state's 254 counties, making them eligible to request government assistance as needed to respond to wildfires. The governor's initial proclamation was Dec. 21, but was renewed on Jan. 19, Feb. 17 and March 18, as extreme wildfire conditions and the drought lingered.
Drought conditions impact fight
In February 2010, officials declared a severe two-year drought in Texas over and rainfall continued throughout the summer over most of the state. But beginning in late summer, early fall last year, the tap shut off and drought began to set in.
Alan Craft, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service, said firefighters are making good progress in some areas, but that the hot weather and drought are likely to make 2011's wildfires worse than in recent years.
"Last year was a pretty mild fire season for the Texas Forest Service," he said. "If things keep going the way they are, and it seems that's going to happen, it's going to be a very active fire season."
All of Texas is experiencing drought, and conditions are classified as extreme or exceptional in about 60 percent of the state, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor map.
There are burn bans in 188 of the state's counties.
Wildfires have burned about more than 915 square miles at least 107 homes have been destroyed since Feb. 22, Craft said. Fires that have blackened about 80,000 acres in Presidio County and 25,000 acres in Brewster County continued to burn Tuesday but no communities were in immediate danger, he said.
That's a far cry from March 2006 — the deadliest wildfire month in state history — when wildfires burned more than 3,000 square miles, destroyed 413 homes and killed 12 people.
Mark Stanford, the operations director for the Texas Forest Service, said the hot, dry weather should last for a few days more but that wind speeds will likely drop from 30 to 40 mph to the teens and low 20s, easing firefighting efforts.
Firefighter remains in critical condition
Firefighter Elias Jacquez remained in critical condition Tuesday with burns over 60 percent of his body, said Loli Reyna, a nursing supervisor at University Medical Center in Lubbock. Jacquez suffered third-degree burns Saturday while fighting a blaze that charred 60,000 acres — about 94 square miles — near Amarillo, according to Moore County Emergency Management spokesman David Garrett.
Fire officials said the town of Benjamin was out of imminent danger after the wind shift Monday but that hot spots several miles away were still being tended to.
"Unless something blows back up, it's pretty well over. We hope," Knox County Commissioner Jimmy Urbanczyk said.