Texas wildfires burn out of control, force Rick Perry to leave campaign trail

September 7, 2011

Texas has another challenge to add to the worst single-year drought recorded in the state: wildfires. Fires have sprouted across the state, and some of them are still burning out of control. As the Capital Weather Gang’s Andrew Freedman reported:

Although Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee have dominated weather headlines during the past two weeks, a longer-term disaster has been unfolding in Texas, where the worst single-year drought on record has intensified - leading to a deadly spate of wildfires that erupted over the holiday weekend. The fires, some of which burned close to Austin, the state capital, prompted Governor Rick Perry to leave the presidential campaign trail to coordinate response efforts.

According to a story in the Post yesterday, authorities were bringing in a tanker plane from as far away as South Dakota to help control the blazes.

Describing the dry and windy conditions in Travis County, sheriff’s spokesman Roger Wade told the Austin-American Statesman, “You light a match out here and you’re going to burn down half the county.”

As of August 30, 81 percent of Texas’ land area was classified as being in the grips of “exceptional drought” conditions, which is the direst category on the U.S. Drought Monitor’s scale. At the end of May, only about 51 percent of Texas was in the exceptional category, illustrating just how significantly the drought expanded and intensified during a summer that featured unrelenting heat and very little rainfall.

According to the Associated Press,more than 1,000 homes have been destroyed by wildfires, the most dangerous of which is a blaze near Austin that has yet to be brought under control by firefighters.

Firefighting crews started Wednesday to gain control of a wind-fueled blaze that has raged unchecked across parched Central Texas for days, leaving a trail of charred properties in its wake and causing thousands of people to flee.

At least two people have died in the wildfire, which has destroyed more than 600 homes and blackened about 45 square miles in and around Bastrop, a city near Austin.

Texas Task Force 1, an elite search team that was sent to New York following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, will be assisting in Bastrop.

The team has dogs that can help look for people trapped in debris, Chief Bob McKee told The Associated Press. “We also have human remains canines that would scent on deceased persons or animals,” McKee said.

Crews finally got a reprieve Tuesday from winds pushed in by Tropical Storm Lee that whipped the blaze into an inferno over the weekend. Texas Forest Service spokeswoman April Saginor said the Bastrop fire was 30 percent contained early Wednesday, and that the lighter winds were assisting firefighters in their efforts.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s response to the wildfires in his state have offered a glimpse of the presidential candidate’s leadership skills. As the Post’s Amy Gardner explained :

With wildfires raging across his state, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) assumed a familiar role this week: crisis commander in chief.

His abrupt decision this week to cut short his presidential campaign schedule in South Carolina to oversee his state’s response to the fires offers a glimpse of a central aspect of his leadership style — and a look at what kind of president he would be.

Since Perry took office in 2001, four hurricanes have made direct landfall in Texas. Another, Rita, came by way of Louisiana and caused more than $11 billion in damage. And then there was Katrina, which plowed into New Orleans in August 2005 and pushed hundreds of thousands of evacuees into the arms of Texas.

His brief suspension of his campaign was a made-for-TV moment in which Perry conveyed empathy by clutching the hands of a wildfire evacuee, clambered onto a helicopter for an aerial tour of the damage and pored over maps with his emergency management team. It was also a breezy survey that left most of the details to his response team, allowing Perry to quickly resume his campaign schedule in California, where he will participate in his first presidential debate on Wednesday.

More from The Washington Post

Bastrop, Texas. Wildfires destroy hundreds of homes (photos, video)

Perry isn’t saying whether he will attend GOP debate as he tours wildfire damage

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