Reinforcements battle Texas blazes to relieve weary local firefighters

Sunday, September 11, 2011
A fresh team of firefighters just arrived from the Sequoia National Forest in California lines up Friday to relieve Texas firefighters near Bastrop, Texas. (L.M. Otero ~ Associated Press)

BASTROP, Texas -- The flames of the massive wildfire that had swallowed nearly 1,400 homes in Central Texas had been tamed, but Webster fire chief Patrick Shipp and his crew -- veterans of a fire season pushing his team to the limit -- know the danger doesn't end there.

Carrying a 40-pound safety pack and protective clothing covering nearly every inch of skin, Shipp and his team hunt down hot spot after hot spot in the Bastrop area, where one of the most destructive wildfires in the state's history has burned for a week. Heavy ash paints a bleak, almost monochrome landscape. It's hard to breathe. Every 10 minutes or so, Shipp squirts Visine in his eyes to ease the sting.

"Every step you take is like a dust storm all around you, it's pretty surreal," he said.

It's a familiar environment for Shipp and hundreds of other firefighters who have spent the past several months battling blazes across the state, and there's little sign of relief. Shipp has been deployed two other times from his home 160 miles away from Bastrop, and he knows the fight won't end anytime soon.

Texas is suffering its worst wildfire outbreak in state history. The Bastrop-area fire has been the largest of nearly 190 wildfires the Texas Forest Service says erupted last week, leaving nearly 1,700 homes statewide in charred ruins, killing four people and forcing thousands of people to evacuate.

Since Texas' fire season began in December, local and state firefighters have responded to more than 20,900 wildfires that have consumed about 3.6 million acres -- roughly the size of Connecticut.

Hundreds of firefighters from Texas and nationwide have been sleeping and resting at Camp Swift, a National Guard post near the blaze, with engines from cities around the state crowding a field as they returned from Thursday's shift. By Thursday night, firefighters said the largest flames had been tamed and they were now focusing on putting out hot spots and ensuring homes were safe for residents to return.

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