A roaring wildfire raced through rain-starved farm and ranchland in central Texas, destroying about 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 40km 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 housing subdivisions as well as ranchland. The blaze consumed as much as 10,000 hectares along a line that stretched for about 26km, Texas Forest Service officials said on Monday.
On Sunday, about 320km 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 on Monday, although several other major blazes continued to burn in at least four other counties in central and north Texas.
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 state capital 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.”
The new outbreak led Texas Governor Rick Perry to return home to Texas, cutting short a visit to South Carolina where he was campaigning for the Republican nomination for US 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 last year, wildfires in Texas have claimed 1.4 million hectares, an area the size of the state of Connecticut, Perry said. The fires have destroyed more than 1,000 homes, he said.
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.
There were no immediate reports of injuries from the Bastrop County fire, and officials said they knew of no residents trapped in their homes.
At least two-thirds of the 2,400-hectare Bastrop State Park had been consumed, said Mike Cox of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
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