Wildfire destroys nearly 500 homes in Texas
Slack winds were expected after midnight Tuesday and could enable firefighters to make progress on the massive blaze racing through rain-starved farm and ranchland, authorities said. Fanned in part by howling winds from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, the blaze rapidly grew Monday to at least 25,000 acres.
"You have to be optimistic and at the same time prepared for the worst," Texas Forest Service spokesman John Nichols said Monday night, acknowledging the weather's unpredictability.
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 Monday. School and school-related activities were canceled Tuesday.
In Bastrop, a town of about 6,000 people along the Colorado River, huge clouds of smoke soared into the sky and hung over downtown. When winds picked up, flames flared over the tops of trees. Helicopters and planes loaded with water flew overhead, and firefighters along a state highway outside the city converged around homes catching fire.
"Waiting is the most frustrating thing," said Gina Thurman, 47, choking back tears as she sat by herself in the shade on a curb outside Ascension Catholic Church, one of several shelters in the area. "You're sitting there and you don't know anything but your house is probably burning."
Rick Blakely was among about 30 people sleeping on cots at the church. The 54-year-old said he was in a state of shock and "not expecting anything to be standing" when he returned to his home.
"I just don't know what I'm going to do," he said.
Strong winds coupled with 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. Dry conditions were expected to persist at least through the week, according to the National Weather Service.
The fire was far enough away from Austin that the city was not threatened, but it consumed land along a line that stretched for about 16 miles, Texas Forest Service officials said.
The wildfire destroyed at least 476 homes, and about 250 firefighters were working around the clock using bulldozers and water trucks against the fire, Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald said.
There were no immediate reports of injuries, and officials said they knew of no residents trapped in their homes.
But the blaze was "nowhere near controlled" on Monday and a separate, smaller blaze south of the city was growing larger, said Mike Fischer, the county's emergency management director. It's unclear how the fire began.
Crews have responded to nearly 21,000 wildfires in Texas since the traditional fire season began early in the year. Outdoor burning, including campfires, is prohibited in all but three of the state's 254 counties.
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.
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 — and destroyed more than 1,000 homes, Perry said. The governor 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 strong winds from what was then Tropical Storm Lee swept into Texas, which has endured its worst drought since the 1950s.
On Sunday, 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 northern Texas.
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.
At least two-thirds of the 6,000-acre Bastrop State Park have burned. The park is home to endangered Houston toads and several historic rock and stone buildings built in the 1930s and 1940s that officials are trying to protect, said Mike Cox of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
From the park's front gate, Cox said: "All I see is a wall of smoke."
Graczyk reported from Houston. Associated Press writer Danny Robbins in Dallas and freelance photographer Erich Chlegel contributed to this report.
Last updated: 6:35 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012