Eintime Conversion for education and research 04-08-2008 @ 12:48:32
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Texas bracing for likelihood of winter wildfires

By Angela K. Brown, Associated Press Writer

FORT WORTH — Despite record-setting spring rains, Texas fire officials are bracing for the likelihood of winter wildfires.

This year's heavy downpours sprouted a thicker growth of trees, bushes and grasses across the state — all of which could quickly turn into a plentiful supply of wildfire fuel.

The conditions could be similar to those in late 2005 and throughout 2006, when fires scorched 2.25 million acres statewide, destroying more than 730 homes and killing 20 people, including two firefighters.

"People realize it can and does happen in Texas, not just California or other places out west," said Traci Weaver, a spokeswoman with the Texas Forest Service. "We can lose entire communities here."

Since last weekend, the southern California wildfires fueled by the hot, dry Santa Ana winds have destroyed more than 1,400 homes while burning more than 482,000 acres.

The spate of Texas fires that started nearly two years ago raced mainly through rural areas, consuming fields and barns. But the small towns of Cross Plains, Carbon and Kokomo in West Texas and Ringgold in North Texas were hit hard when blazes destroyed many homes there.

This year Texas fire officials are concerned about the La Nina conditions developing in the Pacific Ocean, a phenomenon that usually brings warmer temperatures, low humidity and little rainfall to the state in the winter.

That comes on the heels of the wettest January-to-July ever recorded, with a statewide average of 27.11 inches in that period this year — nearly 11 inches above the norm.

Knowing the devastating combination of warm, windy days and the brittle grasses, weeds and brush, firefighters in many parts of the state are starting to prepare for the worst.

"Everybody's talking about it," said James Craft, assistant coordinator for the Tarrant County College Fire Service Training Center in Fort Worth. "The vegetation is taller, and when it dries out, we're afraid we're going to have a humongous inferno."

The center for the first time plans to offer courses early next year for wildland firefighting, which requires different techniques, equipment and gear than battling urban blazes. The center trains about 40 fire departments each year.

The wildfire threat worsens after the season's first grass-killing frost, Weaver said.

This week freezing temperatures hit parts of the Texas Panhandle, where blazes one week in March 2006 consumed some 960,000 acres and killed 12 people.

"It's an ongoing threat in the Panhandle; it can happen at any time," said Calvin Nickell, chief of the Fitch Volunteer Fire Department. "The threat is high, and it will get worse until the first heavy snowfall."

Although trees and logs are retaining moisture in some parts of the state, other areas are drying out.

After a recent period with little activity, this month firefighters have responded to more than 50 fires burning more than 1,600 acres mostly in the eastern part of the state, Weaver said. One was a 14-acre fire that threatened 22 homes near Bastrop in Central Texas last weekend, Weaver said.

A blaze possibly sparked by a rifle scorched 80 to 100 acres at Fort Hood on Wednesday but did not damage buildings or cause injuries, according to officials at the Central Texas Army post.

There were no red flag warnings for Texas on Thursday afternoon, a day after certain areas — including Wichita Falls, Midland, Austin and north of McAllen — were considered a high fire danger, according to the National Weather Service and Texas Forest Service.

"We're not as critically dry as we were last year, when it took nothing to start a fire," Weaver said. "But there's an incredible amount of grass that's ready to burn, with the right conditions."

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