Gov. Perry to Tour Wildfire Damage

Gov. Rick Perry was headed to West Texas on Tuesday to view areas devastated by wildfires that have blackened tens of thousands of acres, destroyed dozens of homes and left one firefighter critically injured.

Perry will visit a staging post in the town of Merkel in Taylor County, which has not been hit by the raging flames, before taking an aerial tour of the surrounding ravaged counties, according to a news release.

The statement did not specify where Perry's helicopter trip would take him, but nearby Tom Green County has lost some 11,000 acres to the flames, while nearly 17,000 acres have burned in Midland County and more than 103,000 acres in Stonewall, Knox and King counties. Another blaze in Presidio County destroyed 40 homes over the weekend.

Alan Craft, a spokesman for the Texas Forest Service, said firefighters are making good progress in some areas, but that the hot weather and drought are likely to make 2011's wildfires worse than in recent years.

"Last year was a pretty mild fire season for the Texas Forest Service," he said. "If things keep going the way they are, and it seems that's going to happen, it's going to be a very active fire season."

All of Texas is experiencing drought, and conditions are classified as extreme or exceptional in about 60 percent of the state, according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor map.

Wildfires have burned about more than 915 square miles at least 107 homes have been destroyed since Feb. 22, Craft said. Fires that have blackened about 80,000 acres in Presidio County and 25,000 acres in Brewster County continued to burn Tuesday but no communities were in immediate danger, he said.

That's a far cry from March 2006 -- the deadliest wildfire month in state history -- when wildfires burned more than 3,000 square miles, destroyed 413 homes and killed 12 people in the deadliest wildfire month in state history.

Mark Stanford, the operations director for the Texas Forest Service, said the hot, dry weather should last for a few days more but that wind speeds will likely drop from 30 to 40 mph to the teens and low 20s, easing firefighting efforts.

Firefighter Elias Jacquez remained in critical condition Tuesday with burns over 60 percent of his body, said Loli Reyna, a nursing supervisor at University Medical Center in Lubbock. Jacquez suffered third-degree burns Saturday while fighting a blaze that charred 60,000 acres -- about 94 square miles -- near Amarillo, according to Moore County Emergency Management spokesman David Garrett.

Fire officials said the town of Benjamin was out of imminent danger after the wind shift Monday but that hot spots several miles away were still being tended to.

"Unless something blows back up, it's pretty well over. We hope," Knox County Commissioner Jimmy Urbanczyk said.

Associated Press writer Diana Heidgerd in Dallas contributed to this report.

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