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Wildfire destroys nearly 500 homes in Texas

By Will Weissert

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Sept. 5 2011 7:10 p.m. MDT

Firefighters from around the state battle a large wildfire on Highway 71 near Smithville, Texas, Monday, Sep. 5, 2011. A roaring wildfire raced unchecked Monday through rain-starved farm and ranchland in Texas, destroying nearly 500 homes during a rapid advance fanned in part by howling winds from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee.

Erich Schlegel, 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, 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 subdivisions as well as ranchland. The blaze consumed as much as 25,000 acres along a line that stretched for about 16 miles, Texas Forest Service officials said.

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 city was not threatened, officials said.

Firefighters lined up 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 making laps 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."

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.

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, Perry said. The fires have destroyed more than 1,000 homes, he said.

Perry 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 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.

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