April 18, 2011 in Nation/World

Wind stokes Texas fires

Dry conditions complicate efforts
April Castro Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Firefighters work at a home that burned to the ground in Austin, Texas, during a wildfire Sunday.
(Full-size photo)

AUSTIN, Texas – Strong winds and tinder-dry conditions presented more challenges Sunday for firefighters battling a spate of wildfires threatening communities across Texas, including a blaze in Austin that destroyed several homes and prompted an aerial water attack in the capital city.

Authorities said a homeless man was arrested late Sunday in the Austin fire, charged with reckless endangerment after starting a campfire in hazardous conditions. The man was being held on $50,000 bond, said Austin Fire Department spokesman Chayer Smith.

Meanwhile, the Texas Department of Public Safety disclosed that a volunteer firefighter who died Friday had been hit by a vehicle after fleeing a firetruck trapped in a wildfire-consumed pasture between Fort Worth and Abilene.

A preliminary autopsy report said Eastland volunteer firefighter Greg Simmons died of blunt force trauma, Senior DPS Trooper Phillip “Sparky” Dean told the Associated Press on Sunday.

Eastland officials initially said the 50-year-old firefighter died after being overcome by smoke and falling into a ditch.

The wildfires have ravaged more than 1,000 square miles of mostly rural terrain in the last week, prompting Gov. Rick Perry to ask President Barack Obama for federal help.

Wildfires have spread across more than 700,000 acres – about the size of Rhode Island – in drought-stricken Texas. About half a dozen massive fires were still burning.

Calmer winds gave firefighters a chance to get a handle on a few massive fires Saturday, and some residents were able to return to their homes . Winds intensified again Sunday to 20 to 25 mph from the south with gusts to 30 mph, giving new life to even some fires that had been declared fully contained, the Texas Forest Service said.

A complex of wildfires 70 to 80 miles west of Fort Worth and south of Possum Kingdom Reservoir had burned about 32,000 acres and may have destroyed more than 50 homes as of Sunday evening, said Forest Service spokeswoman Victoria Koenig.

A grass fire in southwestern Austin damaged at least 10 homes and put as many as 10 others in imminent danger Sunday.

Fire Chief Rhoda Kerr said the dry, windy conditions are still extremely favorable for more fires to occur.

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