Texas wildfires kill 4, destroy more than 600 homes near Austin

BASTROP, Texas — One of the most devastating wildfire outbreaks in Texas history left more than 1,000 homes in ruins Tuesday and stretched the state's firefighting ranks to the limit, confronting Gov. Rick Perry with a major disaster at home just as the GOP presidential contest heats up.

More than 180 fires have erupted in the past week across the rain-starved Lone Star State, and nearly 600 of the homes destroyed since then were lost in one catastrophic blaze in and around Bastrop, near Austin, that raged out of control Tuesday for a third day.

Whipped into an inferno by Tropical Storm Lee's winds over the weekend, the blaze burned more than 45 square miles, forced the evacuation of thousands and killed at least two people, bringing the overall death toll from the outbreak to at least four.

"We lost everything," said Willie Clements, whose two-story colonial home in a housing development near Bastrop was reduced to a heap of metal roofing and ash. A picket fence was melted. Some goats and turkeys survived, but about 20 chickens and ducks were burned to death in a coop that went up in flames.

On Tuesday, Clements and his family took a picture of themselves in front of a windmill adorned with a charred red, white and blue sign that proclaimed, "United We Stand."

"This is the beginning of our new family album," the 51-year-old Clements said.

Perry cut short a presidential campaign trip to South Carolina to deal with the crisis. On Tuesday, he toured a blackened area near Bastrop, which is about 25 miles from Austin.

The governor would not say whether he would take part in tonight's Republican presidential debate in California, explaining that he was "substantially more concerned about making sure Texans are being taken care of." But campaign spokesman Mark Miner said in an e-mail later that Perry planned to be there.

About 1,200 firefighters battled the blazes, including members of departments from around the state and crews from such places as Utah, California, Arizona and Oregon, many of them arriving after Texas put out a call for help. More firefighters will join the battle.

The disaster is blamed largely on Texas' yearlong drought, one of the most severe dry spells the state has ever seen.

The fire in Bastrop County is easily the single most devastating wildfire in Texas in more than a decade, eclipsing a blaze that destroyed 168 homes in North Texas in April. Texas Forest Service spokeswoman April Saginor said state wildfire records go back only to the late 1990s.

At least 11 other fires exceeded 1,000 acres Tuesday, including an 8,000-acre blaze in neighboring Caldwell County. At least six homes were lost in a fire 40 percent contained.

In far Northeast Texas' Cass County, a 7,000-acre fire burned in heavy timberland. And in Grimes County, about 40 miles northwest of Houston, a 3,000-acre fire destroyed nearly two dozen homes and threatened hundreds more.

TEHACHAPI, Calif.

Crews still battling Canyon Fire

A fire threatening 650 homes and a windmill farm was buffeted by erratic winds overnight and grew to more than 20 square miles, firefighters said Tuesday. 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. Called the Canyon Fire, it started Sunday near Tehachapi in Kern County when a single-engine Cessna crashed in the remote area. At least two people are confirmed dead in the crash. Their names have not yet been released. About 200 people have evacuated the area, Berlant said.

Associated Press

Texas wildfires kill 4, destroy more than 600 homes near Austin 09/06/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 7, 2011 11:00am]

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