When nearly 4 million acres of Texas went up in smoke last year, more than 16,000 emergency responders from all 50 states and Puerto Rico helped the Lone Star State's beleaguered firefighters beat back the flames.Now Texas is returning the favor.Fifteen emergency responders, including 11 from the forest service, headed to New Mexico over the weekend to aid in recovery efforts on the Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso."This is our chance to say thank you; we have a big debt to repay," said Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service, which contended with 10,331 fires last year at a cost of around $337 million."We are available to help our neighbors. If we have the resources they need, we will go," he said Monday.Fire experts say that the same combustible combination of prolonged drought, heat and strong winds that created last year's Texas firestorm is still in place over much of the Rocky Mountain area."The drought ended over Texas and stayed in place over the Rockies," said Ed Delgado, national predictive services meteorologist at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho."Last year in Texas was quite an anomaly; it was a combination of all the things you don't want. You were in the midst of a 20-month drought, coupled with extreme temperatures that caused all the vegetation to be primed for fire," he said.All told, 6,500 firefighters from local, state and federal agencies are now committed to fighting large fires across the country, said Jennifer Jones, a public affairs specialist at the fire center.The Texas responders joined more than 1,100 firefighters battling the 38,000-acre Little Bear Fire, which has destroyed 242 homes and businesses. Another fire in the Gila Wilderness, already the largest in New Mexico history, has blackened 463 square miles.In Colorado, about 1,750 firefighters are working the High Park fire west of Fort Collins, which has consumed 90 square miles of forested mountains and destroyed 181 homes, the most in Colorado history."Those big fires are very similar to what we saw in Texas; they are in areas primed over a period of time," Delgado said. "This hasn't been an exceptional fire year; we've just had a few big ones. We are at about two-thirds of the acreage burned we would normally have by this time."Boggus expects more Texas teams to be deployed as the season heats up in July and August."The federal agencies are strapped for cash, too. It's cheaper for them to use federal assets, so they are asking for federal employees first. But I would imagine we are going to be sending folks that way for the rest of the summer," he said.In New Mexico, the incident management team from Texas is working with Lincoln County stakeholders on developing a sustainable plan for recovery from the blaze, said Justice Jones, public information officer for the squad."It's similar to what we did after every wildland urban interface fire in Texas last year. We've been through this ourselves and gained a lot of experience last year," he said.With the drought easing its grip across Texas, state fire officials are cautiously optimistic."We've been blessed," Boggus said of the remarkable turnaround since the end of September, when 86 percent of the state was in an exceptional drought, the highest category. As of June 12, only 0.15 percent is in that classification, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.By this time last year, the Texas Forest Service had responded to 12,262 fires that had burned 3.08 million acres, said public information officer April Saginor.This season, 2,994 fires have burned 59,577 acres, or about the size of the High Park fire in Colorado."We felt like once we got past May, we could breathe a little easier," he said. "If we get normal rain in June it really constricts the summer fire season. We're getting it now with a tropical wave of moisture pushing up from the Gulf of Mexico."It's looking good. We're keeping our fingers crossed," he said.Steve Campbell, 817-390-7981
Colorado fire destroys
eight more homes
Firefighters toiled in hot, dry weather Monday to battle a wildfire that has charred nearly 92 square miles in northern Colorado.
Authorities said they determined eight more homes have burned in the fire near Fort Collins. The blaze started June 9 and now has destroyed at least 189 homes -- the most in the state's history. The fire is 50 percent contained. Other wildfires were burning from Wyoming to Arizona to Southern California.
-- The Associated Press