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Texas residents quickly fled as wildfire closed in

By Christopher Sherman

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 8 2011 1:30 a.m. MDT

Charles Jones looks off into the distance as a wildfire moves closer to his home on County Road 1662 Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011 near Linden, Texas. Firefighters gained ground Wednesday against one of the most destructive wildfires in Texas history even as the state said the number of homes lost reached almost 800, and an elite search team set out to find any victims in the smoking ruins.

The Texarkana Gazette, Adam Sacasa, Associated Press

BASTROP, Texas — Dennis Silman was in line at the store when his wife's urgent call came through: They needed to get out. Smoke was drifting up through the woods and the wildfire that just 30 minutes earlier wasn't near enough to pose a problem was visible over the treetops by the time he got home.

In just 90 minutes, Silman was able to make four trips loading clothes and a few important possessions into his Mustang. He could feel the blaze's heat and hear the crackling roar as he packed his car. Less than two hours after they drove away for the last time Sunday, the Bastrop Complex fire consumed his home and six other houses of relatives who all lived within about four square miles of each other.

"My house, my sister-in-law, her brother, my mother-in-law and three brothers-in-law houses are gone," the 53-year-old bail bondsman said Wednesday outside the county convention center where he came to find out about federal assistance. "Everything's gone now."

Fed by stiff winds and extreme drought, the more than 33,000-acre blaze had blackened about 45 square miles in and around Bastrop, about 25 miles east of Austin, leaving two people dead and consuming nearly 800 homes, the Texas Forest Service said Wednesday. The White House said President Barack Obama telephoned Gov. Rick Perry to say the federal government would continue providing firefighting assistance and quickly assess requests for more aid.

Many Bastrop residents said they had received cell phone photos or videos from those who sneaked back into the fire zone or from volunteer firefighters and police who checked on friends' homes. Others were left to crowd around lists of the lost street addresses posted at the county convention center.

The fire was about 30 percent contained Wednesday and firefighters hoped to take advantage of low winds to make more progress. The destruction has made the blaze the most catastrophic of more than 170 fires that have erupted in the past week — one of the most devastating wildfire outbreaks in state history, which has been blamed for a total of four deaths.

The outbreak has made this the state's costliest wildfire season on record, with $216 million in firefighting expenses since late 2010. The crisis is unfolding months after Perry signed a budget that cut funding to the Texas Forest Service by one-third. Yet the agency insisted that being $35 million lighter hasn't left Texas less equipped to fight the latest fires.

Under the new budget, which went into effect last week, no firefighters in the Forest Service were laid off, said Robbie Dewitt, the agency's finance officer. Moreover, the forest service said it will spend whatever is necessary from state coffers to deal with the disaster and have the expenses accounted for later by state leaders.

Texas Task Force 1, an elite search team, mobilized Wednesday in Bastrop to search the smoldering ruins for more victims. But several thousand people successfully evacuated ahead of the fire, and Bastrop County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Fisher said about 2,500 people had stopped by one of the county's shelters. Many more people likely stayed with family or friends.

Some residents needed no urging to leave because they saw the flames lapping at the trees. Others heard from friends and neighbors, while still others found a sheriff's deputy at their door or heard firemen rolling down the street with bullhorns. In most cases no one had to be told twice. A wildfire here two years ago drove people from their homes and everyone knew about the severity of the drought.

That was the case for Jose "Pepe" Gomez, 57, who had just returned from church to his girlfriend's house Sunday afternoon.

"We were going to celebrate my girlfriend's grandson's birthday, who is only two ...We were going to have a pool party at her swimming pool, have cake for the kids, then they said 'get out,'" Gomez said. "We got evacuated from three locations on that same day. In less than 12 hours we were evacuated three times."

"When you looked up you could see this huge cloud ... we knew it was serious," he said.

Gomez said his girlfriend lost everything after having only enough time to grab a little clothing for her kids and a Bible.

"She was in hysteria when she was told her house was leveled," Gomez said. It was the second home she lost to fire.

Brenda Sanders, a 63-year-old hospice nurse whose home had so far survived the blaze, said she had been oblivious to the fire until a sheriff's deputy came to her door. She and her husband had about 20 minutes to gather items. They grabbed the flags that were on their fathers' caskets, some important insurance documents, mementos from her husband's high school and college football career and their cats.

"It's just been a nightmare," she said. "It's been surreal, the whole experience."

Her friend Denise Rodgers, 56, a hospice chaplain, was not so fortunate. Her house in Tahitian Village burned. First, a friend sent her a photo showing her house untouched. "I was thinking I was in the clear." But later she received a shaky video of the flames circling her home and climbing up one side.

"I could see it coming, you know, over the trees," Rodgers said of her last minutes in the house. "I could see the pink glow so I knew it was close."

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