Storm brings light rain to burned North Texas area

April 21, 2011 2:55:48 PM PDT
With a light drizzle falling over areas west of Fort Worth where firefighters have been battling one of several wildfires burning in Texas, crews were hoping to make progress in containing one of the blazes on Thursday.

Crews have been trying to contain a week-old wildfire in the Possum Kingdom Lake area about 70 miles west of Fort Worth that has blackened nearly 150 square miles of fields and woods and destroyed at least 160 of the community's 3,000 homes.

Any rain is welcome with nearly 70 percent of Texas in extreme and exceptional drought.

Gov. Rick Perry has proclaimed a three-day period, from Friday to Sunday, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the state.

"Things are looking really good," said Haven Cook, a spokeswoman for the federal incident management team coordinating the Possum Kingdom firefight.

She said the fire was at 25 percent containment, but with the calmer conditions Thursday, they hope to make progress in putting in more lines to stop the fire.

"They don't expect a lot of movement of the fire spread today," she said.

She said the overnight weather was damp enough in the town of Mineral Wells - about 15 miles from the nearest fire line - that she had to use windshield wipers on her way into work Thursday morning.

"I've seen a nice steady drizzle," Cook said.

Ted Ryan, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said that while the storm system didn't bring significant rain to the affected area, it pushed overnight temperatures into the 50s and brought high humidity that would help the firefight. The Thursday afternoon forecast for the area called for a 20 to 30 percent chance of rain, winds of 10 to 15 mph and high temperatures in the 70s.

But forecasters say it's warming up, with a high in the low 90s predicted for Friday and 15 to 20 mph wind gusts out of the south.

"Unfortunately, it's not real good news," said Matt Bishop, another National Weather Service meteorologist. "The chance of a Friday shower is looking pretty slim for the Possum Kingdom area."

In West Texas, it was much the same story, with overnight storms in the area bringing cooler temperatures and higher humidity to help Thursday, but bringing little to no rain to the areas where the fires are still burning.

"The weather has really been cooperating," said Bridget Litten, a spokeswoman with the federal firefighting management team called in to help in the West Texas effort.

Of the largest fires in the area, she said the 160,000-acre Wildcat Fire in Coke County is at the stage where firefighters are just making sure nothing else pops up.

She said firefighters plan to cut a line Thursday in front of a fire near Fort Davis that has burned 202,000 acres and 40 structures. The fire is burning in a canyon, and the plan is to burn the area between the fire and the line to stop it.

Both fires are 75 percent contained.

She said that with the storms moving through the region there were a few small fires started by lightning, but she said crews knew that was a danger of storms when there are such dry conditions and were prepared.

Wildfires, including several still burning, have scorched more than 1.4 million acres, or 2,100 square miles, in Texas since Jan. 1, according to the Texas Forest Service. More than 340 people, including firefighters from local departments and federal agencies and troops from the Texas Army National Guard, have battled the blaze that started in the Possum Kingdom Reservoir area.

The lower temperatures and overcast skies should help make trees and vegetation less flammable, said Matt Mosier, a weather service meteorologist based in Fort Worth. However, a prolonged period of precipitation and an end to the drought would be needed to end the wildfire threat, he said.

The improved weather conditions that rolled in Wednesday were expected to remain through the weekend, said David Boyd, spokesman for the federal incident management team coordinating the Possum Kingdom firefight.

"Right now, it looks like Monday before it's hot and windy again," he said.

The prolonged firefighting efforts in cash-strapped Texas have led to a big bill that's only growing.

Since Sept. 1, the beginning of the state's fiscal year, the Texas Forest Service owes $36.3 million for firefighting costs, according to Robby DeWitt, the agency's associate director for finance and administration. Of that, $23.8 million is due the federal government for air support, he said.

A team of federal firefighters and officials from several U.S. agencies - the second one to help with a Texas fire this month - joined local personnel Wednesday, this time to help fight the Possum Kingdom blaze.

Texas has been receiving federal help with West Texas wildfires for more than a week.

"More of a federal effort is coming into the state now because of the severity of the fires and the number," Litten said.


Associated Press Writer Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.