Wildfire destroys nearly 500 homes in Texas

September 5, 2011 - 11:20 PM
Texas Wildfires

Firefighters from around the state battle a large wildfire on Highway 71 near Smithville, Texas, Monday, Sep. 5, 2011. A roaring wildfire raced unchecked Monday through rain-starved farm and ranchland in Texas, destroying nearly 500 homes during a rapid advance fanned in part by howling winds from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. (AP Photo/Erich Schlegel)

BASTROP, Texas (AP) — A roaring wildfire raced through rain-starved farm and ranchland in Central Texas on Monday, destroying nearly 500 homes during a rapid advance that was fanned in part by howling winds from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee.

At least 5,000 people were forced from their homes in Bastrop County about 25 miles east of Austin, and about 400 were in emergency shelters, officials said.

Strong winds and drought conditions allowed the fire to travel quickly over somewhat hilly terrain, burning through pine and cedar trees and wiping out subdivisions as well as ranchland. The blaze consumed as much as 25,000 acres along a line that stretched for about 16 miles, Texas Forest Service officials said.

Huge clouds of smoke soared into the sky and hung over downtown Bastrop, a town of about 6,000 people along the Colorado River. The fire was far enough away from Austin that the city was not threatened, officials said.

Firefighters lined up on a state highway outside Bastrop and converged around homes as they caught fire, hoping to save them. Helicopters and planes loaded with water could be seen flying to and from the fire. When winds increased, flames would flare up and pop out over the tops of trees.

The wildfire destroyed 476 homes, and about 250 firefighters were working around the clock, using bulldozers and pumper trucks against the fire, Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald said.

Mike Fischer, the county emergency management director, said the fire is "nowhere near controlled," and that a separate, smaller blaze south of the city was growing larger.

"I wasn't going to evacuate, but then the smoke got blacker and blacker and it was like: 'OK, time to go,'" said Gina Thurman, 47, an analyst for the Texas Workforce Commission.

"Waiting is the most frustrating thing," she said, choking back tears as she sat by herself in the shade on a curb outside Ascension Catholic Church, one of several shelter sites. "You're sitting there and you don't know anything but your house is probably burning."

Rick Blakely, 54, was among about 30 people who slept on cots at the church. He said he was in a state of shock and "not expecting anything to be standing" when he finally returned to his home.

"I just don't know what I'm going to do," he said.

The new outbreak led Gov. Rick Perry to return home to Texas, cutting short a visit to South Carolina where he was campaigning for the Republican nomination for president. He also canceled a trip to California.

Perry viewed the fire from the air and conferred with local officials. He said seeing the fire was a "surreal" experience.

"I've seen a number of big fires in my life," he said. "This is as mean looking as I've ever seen, particularly because it was so close to the city."

Since December, wildfires in Texas have claimed 3.5 million acres, an area the size of Connecticut, Perry said. The fires have destroyed more than 1,000 homes, he said.

Perry said it was too early to say whether he would attend Wednesday's GOP debate in California.

"I'm not paying attention to politics right now," he said. "There will be plenty of time for that. People's lives and their possessions are at stake, and that's substantially more important."

Authorities mobilized ground and air forces to fight the largest of at least 63 fires that broke out in Texas since Sunday as high winds from what was then Tropical Storm Lee swept into Texas, which has endured its worst drought since the 1950s.

"It's still putting up a lot of smoke and it's scary," Jan Amen, a Texas Forest Service spokeswoman said.

School and school-related activities were canceled for Tuesday.

There were no immediate reports of injuries, and officials said they knew of no residents trapped in their homes.

On Sunday, however, about 200 miles to the northeast in Gladewater, a 20-year-old woman and her 18-month-old daughter died when a fast-moving wildfire gutted their mobile home. That fire was out Monday, although several other major blazes continued to burn in at least four other counties in Central and North Texas.

At least two-thirds of the 6,000-acre Bastrop State Park had been consumed, said Mike Cox of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. All nonessential workers were ordered to leave the park.

"All I see is a wall of smoke," Cox said from the park's front gate. The park is home to several historic rock and stone buildings built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and 1940s.

"We're desperately trying to save them," Cox said. "The fire is getting closer and closer to that part of the park."

It's also home to Houston toads, a 2- to 4-inch species of toad that's been on the endangered species list since 1970.

Officials remained uncertain as to how the Bastrop blaze began, but it appeared that two fires merged to form the "monster" fire, Amen said.

To the west of Austin in Travis County, at least 20 homes were lost and 30 others were damaged in another fire. More than 1,000 homes were under mandatory evacuation and 25 lost in a third fire also in the Austin area.

Texas has experienced more than its share of destructive storms, including Hurricane Ike three years ago. The state, however, would have welcomed the rain that Tropical Storm Lee dumped on Gulf Coast states farther east.

Instead, Texas got Lee's winds, which combined with an advancing cold front to heighten the threat of blazes in a state where crews have responded to nearly 21,000 wildfires since the traditional fire season began early in the year.

Outdoor burning, including campfires and the burning of debris, is prohibited in all but three of the 254 counties in Texas.

The governor's office said at least 40 Texas Forest Service aircraft were involved in the firefighting Monday along with a half-dozen Texas military aircraft. Since the beginning of the wildfire season, local and state firefighters have responded to more than 20,900 fires burning more than 3.6 million acres.

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Graczyk reported from Houston. Associated Press freelance photographer Erich Chlegel contributed to this report.