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Frustrations boil over as Texas wildfires turn up the heat

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Texas needs immediate disaster declaration, lieutenant governor says
  • Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says President Barack Obama hasn't responded to earlier request
  • Nearly 1,400 homes are reported destroyed by the state's largest fire, in Bastrop County
  • More than 18,000 fires have burned 3.5 million acres since January, state officials say

Bastrop, Texas (CNN) -- Texas is in urgent need of a federal disaster declaration to help respond to wildfires throughout the state, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Friday.

Nearly 1,400 homes have been destroyed in Bastrop County since wildfires started there six days ago, Dewhurst said. Other major fires are burning in Cass, Grimes, Montgomery, Travis and Waller counties, according to the Texas Forest Service.

Dewhurst, who is acting governor while Gov. Rick Perry travels, said he got no response to a statewide disaster declaration request earlier this week. So he has signed another one to drive the point home.

"We need help yesterday," Dewhurst said.

There was no immediate response from the White House.

A disaster declaration would give the state access to heavy equipment, personnel, supplies and other support that would help it respond after nearly 300 consecutive days of wildfires, Dewhurst said.

President Barack Obama has approved a limited disaster declaration for fires in April and May.

"But this problem has been ongoing since January," Dewhurst said. "And if anything it's gotten worse."

Dewhurst said despite the situation with the statewide declaration, Texas officials were working with Federal Emergency Management Agency to get disaster declarations for specific counties, including Bastrop.

At more than 34,000 acres, the Bastrop County Complex fire near Austin is the largest burning in the state. Made up of two smaller fires -- the Bastrop fire and the Union Chapel fire -- it has turned parts of the county into a nearly post-apocalyptic scene.

"Utility poles are still burning, stumps are still burning, wire is hanging through the air with only half a pole, swinging. Lines are on the ground," said Mark Rose, general manager and CEO of Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative.

Residents are increasingly frustrated over not being allowed back into the fire zone to survey their property, County Judge Ronnie McDonald said. But he said his main priority is making sure no one else dies from the fire. Search crews found two people dead in the rubble of a neighborhood Tuesday.

"We're trying to make sure we do not let anyone in until it's safe," he said.

The Bastrop fire was about 40% contained Friday, while the Union Chapel fire was 90% contained. Dewhurst said firefighters had been able to stop the flames' forward progress, but Bastrop emergency management coordinator Mike Fisher said fires and hot spots are scattered throughout the county.

Elsewhere in the state, the forest service said a fire that may have burned up to 40,000 acres in Cass County was continuing to spread. The Bear Creek Fire had destroyed eight homes and was being battled by everything from ground crews to heavy air tankers, the forest service said.

And another major fire near Houston was 60% contained, the forest service said Friday. The Riley Road fire had affected 15,000 acres in Grimes, Montgomery and Waller counties and was moving to the southwest through Waller, the forest service reported.

The service said it had responded to 186 fires covering 156,517 acres in the past week. Nineteen new fires broke out Thursday, mostly small ones, the agency said.

Since January 1, state and local firefighters and crews from across the country have battled 18,887 wildfires over more than 3.5 million acres in Texas, according to state officials.

The past 10 months since fire season began in November have been the driest in the state since 1895, Dewhurst said.