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Wildfire destroys nearly 500 homes in Texas

By Will Weissert

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Sept. 5 2011 4:40 p.m. MDT

Texas Governor and Presidential hopeful Rick Perry, autographs a copy of his book for a supporter after a town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., at Horry-Georgetown Technical College on Monday Sept. 5, 2011 in Conway, S.C.

Willis Glassgow, Associated Press

BASTROP, Texas — A roaring wildfire raced unchecked Monday through rain-starved farm and ranchland in Central Texas, destroying nearly 500 homes during a rapid advance 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, many of them fearing the worst while spending the night in emergency shelters. 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 blaze consumed as much as 25,000 acres along a line that stretched for about 16 miles, Texas Forest Service officials said.

It 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 is 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, said when it finally would be time to return home, "I'm not expecting anything to be standing."

He was among about 30 people who slept on cots at the church.

"There was someone who asked how I was and it's a state of shock," he said. "I just don't know what I'm going to do."

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.

"The wildfire situation in Texas is severe and all necessary state resources are being made available to protect lives and property," Perry 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.

School and school-related activities were canceled for Tuesday.

There were no immediate reports of injuries.

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, a popular getaway just east of Bastrop, had been consumed, said Mike Cox, with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. All nonessential workers had been ordered out of 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 constructed in the 1930s and 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

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

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