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Weather offers no respite to weary firefighters

By Terry Wallace

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 19 2011 1:16 a.m. MDT

A firefighter lights a back burn to prevent a wildfire from jumping the highway in Coke County, Texas, on Monday, April 18, 2011.

Reporter-News, Tommy Metthe, Associated Press

DALLAS — Hundreds of firefighters battling a wave of wildfires that have been burning in West Texas in the past week are looking to the sky for a little relief.

Forecasters offered only a slight hope of rain later this week, however, leaving weary, begrimed firefighters around Possum Kingdom Reservoir, Coke County and the Trans-Pecos of West Texas to fight the flames the hard way.

Hundreds of homes and weekend retreats around Possum Kingdom, a North Texas lake on the Brazos River, remain in harm's way, with three fires expected to combine into one massive one.

Meanwhile, fire crews work to keep the Coke County fire north of San Angelo and other blazes in the rugged Trans-Pecos away from populated areas.

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 combined would be the size of Rhode Island.

Trooper Gary Rozzell of the Texas Department of Public Safety said heat from the flames of fires near Possum Kingdom Reservoir on the Brazos River, 70 miles west of Fort Worth, grew so intense Monday that cinders were sent high into the atmosphere. There, they became icy and fell to the ground in a process called "ice-capping," he said.

"They tell me it's like a roof falling in," he said.

The fires drove residents from their homes along the shore of the North Texas lake, with at least 18 homes and two churches burned. The flames reached a storage building containing fireworks on the reservoir's western shore, lighting up the night but causing no injuries, Palo Pinto County Judge David Nicklas said.

According to the Texas Forest Service, the so-called Possum Kingdom Complex of fires had blackened 63,000 acres and reduced more than 30 homes to ashes since starting last week. The fires were 25 percent contained as of Monday night, the Forest Service reported in a statement.

Rugged, hilly terrain north of San Angelo was complicating efforts to bring the Wildcat Fire in Coke County under control. However, firefighters gained ground on it Monday after using "burnouts" on Sunday to clear out fuel needed by the advancing flames, according to Texas Forest Service spokesman Oscar Mestas. He said some scattered rural areas were evacuated as a precaution, but no homes were reported destroyed by the 104,000-acre fire.

Two people who apparently wanted to see the fires from the air died when their single-engine biplane crashed near San Angelo, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Lynn Lunsford said Monday.

Witnesses told investigators the two-seater took off from Mathis Field/San Angelo Municipal Airport on Sunday and that the two people on board, whose identities had not been released, indicated they wanted to go on a sightseeing trip over the wildfire, Lunsford said. The wreckage was found Monday east of San Angelo.

In Austin, some residents of a neighborhood in the southwestern corner of the capital city returned Monday to find charred ruins of their homes after a Sunday wildfire.

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 area, said Austin Fire Department spokesman Palmer Buck.

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. 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.

Castro reported from Austin, Texas.

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