by: Jim Bell, January 20, 2006 12:01:00 am
Most people in the Houston area think wildfires only happen in other parts of the state, but Jack Colley in the Governor's Office of Emergency Management says they're wrong. Colley told a statewide teleconference from Austin that wildfires are a serious threat in suburban areas, out on what they call the urban interface -- where development ends and open country begins. He says they know from experience that a grass fire burning out of control is a threat to everything in its path, including expensive homes in the suburbs.
"With these winds of 25, 30 and 40 miles per hour, when a simple grass fire occurs, that fire will move at that speed, and that speed will increase the intensity of a very small fire, and it will create just a fire storm."
The Texas Forest Service says the state has had more than 2,000 wildfires. More than 450 thousand acres has burned, half that total just this month, and nearly 350 homes have been destroyed. A number of those homes were in several communities that were burned out of existence in north Texas.
"So when it goes into these small urban areas, an urban interface area, then it gets into a home or a subdivision, or where there are structures, you know it takes off on its own. There's not a whole lot you can do."
Nine counties in north and west Texas have been declared federal disaster areas, which clears the way for FEMA to open Disaster Recovery Centers in several cities, and help people with losses in the fires. FEMA Spokesman Earl Armstrong:
"Some of the assistance available could include repair money, they could get some rental assistance or help if their home is lost. They might be eligible for a loan from the Small Business Administration."
The Forest Service is bringing in hundreds of firefighters from other states to help the 300 or so Texas firefighters, and they're all working around the clock to get control of the situation. More than 200 of the state's 254 counties have banned outdoor burning, but officials say it will only get worse until the state gets a lot of rain in a lot of places soon.