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Austin residents return to wildfire-scorched homes

A Travis Co. Star Flight helicopter drops water on a wildfire that destroyed homes in southwest Austin, Texas on Sunday, April 17.
A Travis Co. Star Flight helicopter drops water on a wildfire that destroyed homes in southwest Austin, Texas on Sunday, April 17.Jack Plunkett / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

David and Kris Griffin returned home from out-of-town weekend trips on Monday to find that their house was one of at least 20 in their Austin neighborhood destroyed or nearly destroyed by a weekend wildfire.

Nearly all of their possessions went up in flames, and George, their cat of 11 years, was missing. Making their loss even tougher to grasp, the homes on both sides of theirs survived relatively unscathed.

"All the other houses got saved except ours ... we're just kind of speechless right now," said Kris Griffin. She said finding the cat was their priority, because their possessions were replaceable.

Authorities charged a 60-year-old homeless man with arson on Monday, saying he defied a nearly statewide burn ban and left a campfire untended Saturday when he went to a store to buy beer. Fire officials say wind-blown embers ignited the blaze, which spread quickly through a suburban-like area of southwest Austin and forced the evacuation of about 200 homes.

The blaze destroyed 10 homes in the affected area and significantly damaged 10 others, and those numbers were likely to rise as fire officials continued searching the affected area, said Austin Fire Department spokesman Palmer Buck said Monday.

One of the driest spells in Texas history has left most of the state in extreme drought, and wildfires in various parts of the state have burned more than 1,000 square miles of land in the past week — an area that together would equal that of Rhode Island.

Gov. Rick Perry asked President Barack Obama on Sunday for federal disaster funding, and forestry officials said Monday that the threat of new wildfires remained extremely high in the western part of the state.

In East Texas, closer to Texas' border with Louisiana, new blazes have broken out in an area known for its thick forests, sometimes called the Piney Woods. About 3,000 acres have burned in the area, Texas Forest Service spokesman Marq Webb said.

Webb said he was particularly concerned that the tops of some trees have been set alight by wind-carried embers, a phenomenon known as crowning.

"Fire builds up and gets into the tops of trees, it just races through the top," said Webb. "You don't normally see that kind of fire activity in East Texas. The fire factor is just running off the charts."

Crowning likely contributed to the erratic damage in the Austin fire.

At the home next door to the Griffin's, only a door frame had been damaged. On the other side, only a wooden fence and part of the backyard had been burned. But a short walk up the hill, firefighters were working to bulldoze a collapsed home that had continued to smolder by late Monday morning.

Steven Schrage, who rents one of the houses next door to the Griffins, said he watched through binoculars Sunday as the wildfire raced up a ridge toward his backyard. He fled with his computer and family photos and spent the night at a hotel, certain he had lost everything. But he returned Monday to find his home had been spared.

"I'm a little bit freaked," said Schrage, 57. "I don't know if I want to live here anymore."

David Griffin, 50, said it was the spectacular views from their ridge-top home that lured them to the Austin outskirts two years ago. Their backyard overlooked a lush, brush-covered panorama dotted with old oak trees and wildflowers. The fire left it a smoldering wasteland.

"We had this gorgeous view of all these trees and now it's nothing," Kris Griffin said. "I wish I had some profound thing to say but I'm just blown away."

Meanwhile, a federal official said two people who apparently wanted to see a wildfire from above were killed when their single-engine biplane crashed.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Lynn Lunsford said the wreckage was found Monday east of San Angelo.

Lunsford says witnesses told investigators the two-seat Christen Eagle took off from Mathis Field/San Angelo Municipal Airport on Sunday. Witnesses said the two people on board indicated they wanted to go on an apparent sightseeing trip over the wildfire.

Lunsford says both were believed to be in the Air Force, but weren't flying in any official capacity.

The plane was registered to a North Dakota address. A woman who answered the phone at listing there said a family member "was involved" in the crash but had no further details.