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Fires burn across Texas with no end in sight

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Texas fires force hundreds to evacuate
  • Spring winds combined with dry conditions typical of late summer have "not boded well"
  • A Forest Service spokeswoman says conditions in Texas are the driest since 1917
  • 7,807 fires have affected more than 1.5 million acres since this year's wildfire season began
  • In southwest Austin, 10 homes suffered major damage

Dallas (CNN) -- Sara Rogers-Smith considers herself one of the lucky ones.

She, her husband and two kids were allowed to return to their home Monday and found it in one piece after a wildfire swept the area. Some of their neighbors were not as fortunate.

"We definitely feel lucky," Rogers-Smith said in a telephone interview from her home in southwest Austin. "The wind was blowing in the complete opposite direction of our house."

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She said several other homes in her area were damaged and that at least two were burned to their foundations, leaving just metal and ash as reminders of what was.

Dozens of large fires continued to burn out of control Monday in Texas in what officials have described as unprecedented conditions that show no signs of abating soon.

Hundreds of fires threaten Texas
Fires tear across Texas
  • Fires
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  • Rick Perry

"We're experiencing conditions never seen in Texas before," said Marq Webb, a spokesman with the Texas Forest Service. "Yesterday, we had 1,400 people and that number will go up today," he said in a telephone interview Monday from the service's incident command center in Merkel just west of Abilene.

Perfect storm for wildfires

In all, the Forest Service has been asked to help battle fires covering some 700,000 acres, said Webb.

Thirty-one fires were being fought in East Texas; another 11 fires in West Texas, officials said.

"We've had 19 consecutive days of just super-dry weather, relative humidities in the single digits," said Forest Service spokeswoman C.J. Norvell in Midland. "What we're seeing right now is winds that are typical of spring, but everything else is typical of late summer -- no rain, vegetation that's just super dry. When you combine those two, it really has not boded well."

The Wildcat Fire just north of San Angelo has led to the evacuation of hundreds of people from their homes, Norvell said. The same fire threatens three small communities just north of San Angelo -- Robert Lee, Bronte and Tennyson, she said.

A predicted change in wind direction from south to southwest could worsen the prognosis, she said. "This little change is going to test some infrastructure and fire lines that we've set up," she said.

The fires have a variety of causes -- some of them acts of nature, such as lightning strikes -- but most of them acts of man, said Webb. Those include anything from fence welding to debris burning, despite the fact that burn bans are in effect for 195 of the state's 254 counties, he said.

Texas authorities have made an arrest in connection with one of hundreds of blazes scorching the state in what a Forest Service official called the "perfect storm for wildfires."

A man was arrested and charged with reckless endangerment, which is a felony under Texas law, Austin Fire Department Battalion Chief Palmer Buck said early Monday. The man, whom authorities did not immediately identify, was being held under a $50,000 bond.

According to Buck, the man started a campfire at a homeless camp in a remote area, which got out of control and prompted evacuations. The fire burned about 60 acres.

"We're experiencing conditions we've never seen in Texas before," he said. "We have a huge area of Texas with abundant fuels and they are tinder dry -- and I'm talking about probably half of the state."

Monday's forecast was worse than Sunday's, "and tomorrow's supposed to be worse than today," he said. Though temperatures are expected to dip Wednesday, they were predicted to ramp back up on Thursday and Friday.

Such weather has taxed the resources available to fight the fires. "We're stretched pretty thin right now," Webb said.

Conditions this spring are the driest they've been in Texas since 1917, said a Texas Forest Service spokeswoman.

Authorities have responded to 7,807 fires across more than 1.5 million acres since this year's wildfire season began, Gov. Rick Perry wrote over the weekend in a letter to President Barack Obama. Perry requested that the federal government declare Texas a disaster area. Fires have affected all but two of the state's 254 counties.

Perry noted that one firefighter has died and 18 others have been injured, while 244 homes have been destroyed and another 8,514 threatened residences "saved."

CNN affiliate WFAA in Dallas-Fort Worth reported Bill Morris was one of the many Texans forced from his home by the fires. He spoke to the station as he was putting photographs and his wife's jewelry in the car, preparing to leave -- again.

"I've spent the night in a hotel three different times. And then I'm told I can come back, and come back just to get evacuated the next day," he said.

In the Possum Kingdom complex west of Fort Worth, approximately 90 head of cattle were killed by the fire, said Webb.

In southwest Austin, 10 homes suffered major damage and six suffered minor damage in a 100-acre area, said Matt Curtis, a spokesman for Mayor Lee Leffingwell. Curtis said Monday morning that the fire was contained, though firefighters were expected to spend the day looking for potential flareups and hot spots.

"Luckily, this fire happened in a somewhat unpopulated part of that neighborhood," he said. The multi-jurisdictional effort included the Austin Police Department, the Austin-Travis County Fire Department, the Austin-Travis County EMS, the Travis County Sheriff's Department and the Texas Forest Service.

"The mayor, who has lived in Austin all 72 of his years, described this as the largest fire he had ever seen in Austin and largest multi-jurisdictional effort," said Curtis.

CNN's Leslie Tripp and Stephanie Gallman contributed to this report.