Officials: 1,000 Texas homes burned in past week

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by CYNTHIA VEGA & WILL WEISSERT

WFAA & The Associated Press

Posted on September 6, 2011 at 9:41 AM

Updated Tuesday, Sep 6 at 6:31 PM

AUSTIN - More than 1,000 homes have been destroyed in at least 57 wildfires across rain-starved Texas, most of them in one devastating blaze near Austin that is still raging out of control, officials said Tuesday.

Gov. Rick Perry, who cut short a presidential campaign trip to South Carolina on Monday to return to help oversee firefighting efforts in Texas, toured a blackened area near Bastrop, about 25 miles from Austin, where a fast-moving blaze destroyed nearly 600 homes on Monday.

At a news conference afterward, he marveled at the destruction and pointing out that more than 100,000 acres in the drought-stricken state had burned over the past week, and that more than 3.5 million acres — an area roughly the size of Connecticut — had burned since December.

"Pretty powerful visuals of individuals who lost everything," Perry said. "The magnitude of these losses are pretty stunning."

Some residents said they were surprised by how quickly the blaze engulfed their neighborhoods.

"We were watching TV and my brother-in-law said to come and see this," Dave Wilhelm, 38, who lives just east of Bastrop said. "All I saw was a fireball and some smoke. All of a sudden: Boom! We looked up and left."

Wilhelm returned Tuesday to find his neighbor's house and three vehicles gone, some of his own children's backyard toys destroyed but their house spared.

"Some stuff is smoldering on the lot behind us. Inside of the house, we smell like a campfire. We're definitely very lucky."

The fire had scorched some 30,000 acres by Tuesday, and the Texas Forest Service said crews were still trying to contain it. State emergency management chief Nim Kidd said that the fire was the most destructive fire of the year in Texas, and that the number of homes destroyed will likely go up, once the hardest-hit areas are assessed.

The blaze was one of dozens that started Sunday in Texas and that were fed by strong wind gusts caused by Tropical Storm Lee. Forestry officials said that Tuesday's calmer winds would help firefighting efforts.

"It's encouraging we don't have winds right now, not like yesterday," Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Victoria Koenig said

Even with the encouraging conditions, Koenig said it was a "tough, tough fire" that was raging through rugged terrain, including a ridge of hills.

"You can still see the hills glowing quite a bit," she said.

At least 5,000 people were forced from their homes in Bastrop County, 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 Monday. 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.

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

Perry, who was scheduled to take part in a Republican presidential debate on Wednesday, declined to say whether he would skip the event to stay in Texas.

"We'll deal with that when it comes up," he said. "I'm substantially more concerned about making sure Texans are being taken care of."

But his campaign spokesman, Mark Miner, said in an email later Tuesday that "the governor plans on being at the debate."

Perry, a tea party favorite who has made a political career of railing against government spending, said he expects federal assistance with the wildfires. He also expressed frustration that equipment at Fort Hood, including bulldozers and equipment that can cut deep fissures in the earth, are not already in use.

"Whenever you've got people hurting, when you've got lives that are in danger, in particular, I really don't care who the asset belongs to," Perry said. "If it's sitting in some yard somewhere and not helping become part of the solution, that's a problem."

Several other states were also fighting wildfires on Tuesday.

In California, a fire near Tehachapi, in Kern County, was threatening 650 homes and a windmill farm had grown to more than 20 square miles. The winds died down early Tuesday and crews were aggressively attacking the blaze, said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

That fire started Sunday when a small plane crashed in the remote area. At least two people are confirmed dead in the crash.

The fire had destroyed 12 homes and 18 outbuildings and is about 10 percent contained, Kern County Fire Department spokesman Victor Cruz said.

And in northwestern Louisiana, wildfires had burned at least 500 acres and three homes near the town of Ida and forced the evacuation of dozens of residents.

Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator said the fires started over the weekend in northern Caddo Parish. Firefighting crews were dispatched from parish fire districts, nearby towns and cities and eastern Texas and southern Arkansas.

No injuries were reported.

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