Out-of-control wildfires — among the worst in state history — leaped across Texas’ parched midsection, destroying 1,000 homes and killing four as firefighters called for more resources and the governor, a Republican presidential hopeful who’s made his mark blasting federal spending, asked Washington for help.
Winds were expected to abate, but only slightly, and the dry conditions will persist for days.
Gov. Rick Perry complained about the slow pace of assistance from Washington and Ft. Hood as Federal Emergency Management Agency officials arrived in Bastrop, where 600 houses were burned, to survey fire damage.
Perry called on the Obama administration to expand the scope of federal disaster relief. He noted that in addition to issuing state disaster proclamations when fires flared in April, he had sent a letter to President Obama requesting a major disaster declaration, which would have made the state eligible for federal assistance.
The Obama administration denied Perry’s request May 3. Perry appealed and received partial approval July 1. A request to expand the scope of federal relief is still pending, his spokeswoman said Tuesday.
White House Spokesman Jay Carney said the administration had been monitoring the wildfires and approved seven federal grants to Texas to help with the latest outbreak. “We will continue to work closely with the state and local emergency management officials [in] their efforts to contain these fires,” he said.
It was unclear whether Perry, who took an aerial tour of fire-scorched areas near Austin, would be able to attend a Republican debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley on Wednesday.
Perry and other Republican lawmakers have recently argued that federal disaster relief — such as aid for states hit by tornadoes and hurricanes — must be offset by federal spending cuts, but they have yet to make that argument in fire-ravaged Texas. The state recently cut funding for volunteer fire departments by 75% as a cost-saving measure.
Texas Forest Service officials said they were requesting 300 to 400 additional firefighters from outside agencies. Officials said crews fighting the Bastrop blaze and other large fires were still short-staffed Tuesday, although help was arriving from elsewhere in the state and as far away as California.
When the fast-moving fire erupted Sunday afternoon it was nearly unstoppable. But on Tuesday, the Bastrop County emergency management coordinator, Mike Fisher, announced that local officials had the resources needed to battle the blaze, including 366 firefighters.
Dennis Silman said he watched Sunday as local volunteer firefighters, completely overmatched, tried to protect homes outside Bastrop, a town of 6,000 residents about 30 miles east of Austin.
“They didn’t have the trucks, they didn’t have the people, they didn’t have the equipment,” said Silman, 53. “They didn’t have anything.”
Silman, his wife and their 14-year-old granddaughter stuffed their car with clothes and photographs and fled.
“We felt the damn heat,” Silman said.
Within a few hours, their home of about 17 years had burned to the ground.
The Bastrop fire had burned more than 33,000 acres and was still not contained late Tuesday, in part because firefighters confronting the flames had to repeatedly back off because of the winds, which also made air drops of water and fire retardant less effective, said Roddy Baumann, a fire behavior analyst with the U.S. Forest Service.
The fires were driven in part by the state’s long-term drought, which turned the central Texas hill country landscape of grasses, pines and junipers (“mountain cedars” to locals) into a tinderbox. Again and again, firefighters were overwhelmed.
“A person with a shovel can work up next to about 4-foot flame lengths — that’s called direct attack,” Baumann said. “But once the flame lengths go above 8 feet, you have to back off. Once you go above 11 feet, there’s nothing you can do.”
The Bastrop fire leaped through the tops of trees 40 feet high.
“You can drop retardant on it, but it’s not very effective,” Baumann added. “You just have to back off a bit further.”
So far, four people have died in the wildfires, including a 20-year-old woman and her 18-month-old child killed Sunday when their mobile home was consumed by flames in eastern Gregg County.
On Tuesday afternoon, deputies patrolling a burned neighborhood near Bastrop found the bodies of two people in a home they had refused to evacuate, according to Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Sissy Jones.
“We’re evacuating well ahead of the fires, and unfortunately we just have residents who refuse to leave their homes,” Jones said.
In Bastrop County, it’s obvious why so much land is ablaze. Grassy medians and residential lawns have browned and yellowed, the result of little rain and weeks of scorching temperatures.
Judy Leek, 66, lives on 120 parched acres in an area known as Cedar Creek. For some time, the retired physicist said, residents were barred from watering their lawns more than five days a week.
“We’ve been in this horrible drought,” she said Tuesday. “If you flicked a cigarette or a spark flew, you could start a fire.”
On Monday, one finally ignited near Leek’s Turkey Track Ranch.
The wind roared. Gray and white smoke clouded the sky. Ash rained down. Leek thought of the all the oaks and cedars on the property that flames could easily chew up.
“That’s when I decided the horses had to go,” she said. She had to leave two calves behind.
Tuesday saw a brief lull in gusts driven by Tropical Storm Lee this weekend, but fire crews were bracing for more dry winds and low humidity to fan fires on Wednesday.
Retirees Jack Hay, 69, and his wife, Linda, 73, were hoping to return to their home east of Bastrop this week.
They had left in such a hurry Sunday night, they were only able to grab two of their five dogs. On Tuesday, they joined evacuees streaming into the Bastrop County Convention Center, where packages of bottled water were piled high. Officials said pockets of fire in the neighborhood made it too dangerous to return.
The Hays were crestfallen.
“The house we’re not too concerned about, but the animals —" Jack Hay said, his voice trailing off. “If it burned down, all the dogs go with it.”
Times staff writer Stephen Ceasar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.