No rain coming as Texas wildfire scorches dry, hard-hit area

Firefighters work with heavy machinery to contain the fire near Smithville, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015. The Texas A&M Forest Service says challenging topography and uncontrolled fire lines has slashed the containment of the Bastrop County fire to 10 percent as night fell Wednesday. The Forest Service had estimated 50 percent containment earlier Wednesday. (Rodolfo Gonzalez/Austin American-Statesman via AP)


SMITHVILLE, Texas (AP) — A mounting wildfire on Thursday chewed the same scorched Central Texas forestland that is recovering from a massive deadly blaze in 2011, with no rain in sight to extinguish the latest flare-up that has threatened hundreds of homes.

Firetrucks raced past blackened trees still standing from the Bastrop County fires four years ago. Residents whose houses narrowly escaped destruction in 2011 pleaded with police at barricades for information about their homes’ fates this time, but sulked back to their cars with no answers.

“I’m not too happy right now. I want to know if my house is on fire,” said Mike Waterman, 35, returning to his Jeep loaded with his wife, three dogs, two cats and a gerbil, all of whom left their house Tuesday. “I’m getting no information.”

Bastrop County officials said residents of about 400 homes have been advised to evacuate since the fire began Tuesday. The cause of the blaze is unknown. No deaths or injuries have been reported. At least nine homes have been destroyed.

The fire near the rural ranching community of Smithville — where a sign proudly announces the town as the home of the 1998 Sandra Bullock film “Hope Floats” — had burned more than 6 square miles. The 2011 wildfire destroyed nearly 10 times as much ground, wiped out 1,600 homes and killed two people.

Authorities say conditions are not ripe for a repeat of destruction on that level. About 15 percent of the fire had been contained, with winds Thursday at about 10 mph, compared with the 50 mph gusts of 2011 that spread flames across the county.

Still the fire quadrupled in size in one day, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and county officials were warning that a threat remained.

“We grieve for the families and the homeowners who are displaced by this,” said Abbott, who declared a state of disaster for the county and authorized unspecified extra state resources to fight the fire. “This has to be an echo of a nightmare that they faced just a few years ago.”

His news conference ended when the loud thrum of a Chinhook helicopter lowered toward the lake behind him to refill giant water bags being used to douse the fire from the air.

Smoke from the wildfire has wafted more than 40 miles east into downtown Austin. Winds shifted Thursday and moved south-southeast toward more sparsely populated areas, said Mike Fisher, Bastrop County’s emergency management coordinator.

The fire was being fueled partly by hot, dry weather. Temperatures approached 93 degrees around Austin on Thursday, flirting with a record high for mid-October. Less than 2 inches of rain have fallen in Bastrop County since July. Highs are expected to drop into the 80s starting Friday, but humidity will remain low, National Weather Service meteorologist Cory Van Pelt said.

About 400 homes and businesses were without power Thursday and Buescher State Park will be closed through Sunday due to the fire threat. Officials said about 50 people stayed in shelters overnight Wednesday, with many others retreating to hotels or the homes of friends.

“There will be victory. It may be a day or two, it may be longer depending on the weather, but we will win this,” Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape said. “We’ve done this before. We know what we’re doing. It just takes time.”

Forest Service officials say three other wildfires were burning in Texas Thursday, with 400 acres blackened in Taylor County, 350 acres burned in Ellis County and 1,000 acres scorched in Menard County.
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Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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