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Texans warned to prepare for fresh wildfires

/ Source: staff and news service reports

Texas was expected to break its yearly record for the number of acres burned by wildfires with officials warning that Monday through Wednesday would see a high risk of fresh blazes.

Marq Webb, a public information officer with the Texas Forest Service, told Monday that a "dry line" of weather, with winds of 50 mph and low humidity, was expected to move across the state from the south-west Monday.

He said people living west of a line from the Dallas-Forth Worth area to Del Rio should be prepared to evacuate at short notice.

The fresh outbreak of fires was expected after the weather gave a brief respite.

"We've had a few days of relief on many of the large fires we have been working on," Webb told by phone. "We have been able to make a lot of progress on containment and control on a number of large fires over the last few days."

"However, a dry line will push in from the west today (Monday) ... It's an extremely critical day. The next three days through Wednesday are going to be critical weather days," he added.

"We're gearing up to go back to new fires," Webb said, adding: "If people are told to evacuate, they don't need to question that, they just need to evacuate."

The burnt remnants of the First Baptist Church of Possum Kingdom Lake, are photographed in Graford, Texas, Sunday, April 24, 2011. The sanctuary burned during a wildfire on April 15. The Easter services were held in Family Life Center that was not burned in the fires. (AP Photo/Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Max Faulkner)Max Faulkner

He said the record number of acres burned in one year was 1.94 million in 2006. So far this year, the figure is 1.84 million. Webb said that record could go Monday or over the next few days as one fire could cover 100,000 acres.

"That (the 2006 record) was for an entire year and we're just in April," Webb said. "We've got a lot of the fire season left."

Webb said Monday morning that wildfires were burning uncontrolled on about half a million acres of the state.

He added there was no sign of significant rain in forecasts.

Training money
Meanwhile, a state report has found that some of the Texas counties that endured the worst damage from this month's wildfires received only a small portion of the more than $128 million the state awarded to volunteer fire departments over about a decade for training and equipment.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission found in its review of the program that 59 of the 74 counties determined to have a high risk for wildfires got less than $1 million in grant money for their volunteer fire departments from 2001 through 2009, the period covered in the report.

The commission's report criticized the Texas Forest Service for not considering wildfire risk as a factor when divvying up the grants.

Forest service officials say starting Sept. 1 that policy will change and such risk will be considered.

One former volunteer fire department chief in the Panhandle said he was surprised wildfire risk hasn't been used previously.

"Somebody wasn't thinking whenever they were developing the criteria for grants and such," said Ron Antalek, the former chief of the Spearman department and now its safety officer. "It's kind of strange."

Two volunteer firefighters have died fighting the wildfires this month.

John Powell, a former volunteer firefighter and close friend of Eastland volunteer firefighter Greg Simmons, who died battling a recent blaze, said a situation can turn deadly if some fighting a wildfire are well-trained and others aren't.

"Training is the key," Powell said. "The department of redundancy. You do it over and over again. And by doing that, everybody goes home. At the end of the day, that's all that matters."

Forest service officials said the only reason wildfire risk wasn't considered previously was because it wasn't part of the legislation that established the grant program and that county-specific data has been available for only a few years.

Even without considering wildfire risk, the agency has never denied a request for trucks or training, the officials said.

Mark Stanford, the forest service's director of operations, said the agency rates grant applicants using a formula that includes population, size of protection area and closest mutual aid.

"Really, about the only complaint we get is, 'How come I can't get my truck faster?'" he said.

'First line of defense'
There are 1,042 volunteer departments in Texas with about 28,000 firefighters, according to information from the State Firemen's & Fire Marshals' Association.

"We understand that volunteer firefighters are the first line of defense and know how important that is," forest service director Tom Boggus said.

The sunset commission's analysis, which was released in January and is currently being considered by the Texas Legislature, found counties with a low risk for wildfires had received a greater share of the $128 million handed out through the Texas Rural Volunteer Fire Department Assistance Program than many of those with the highest risk.

Three of the high-risk counties that received less than $1 million — Tom Green, Andrews and Palo Pinto — have been significantly affected by the current fires.

Palo Pinto is one of two counties where firefighters have battled a blaze covering nearly 150,000 acres around Possum Kingdom Lake, a popular recreation area 70 miles west of Fort Worth.

In 2006, 12 people were killed in wildfires in the Texas Panhandle that strained the resources of small volunteer fire departments.

According to the commission's report, 18 of the 59 high-risk counties that didn't top $1 million in grants are in the Panhandle.

For a volunteer firefighter from one of those counties, a fire recently proved deadly. Volunteer firefighter Elias Jaquez of the Cactus Volunteer Fire Department in Moore County died April 20, 11 days after suffering third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body.

Forest service records obtained by The Associated Press show the Cactus department has received $168,211 in grant funds, including $155,000 for a large brush truck. None of the money was for training.

However, the region's firefighters will be better trained going forward. A $120,000 federal grant and $24,000 from an endowment set up by the family of Katherine Ryan, who died in wildfires near Borger in 2006, have led to the creation of the Top of Texas Rural Fire Academy.

"We'll do it on our own," Antalek said. "We don't need the rest of the state to take care of us."