Smoke billows from a wildfire in Bastrop County, Texas, on Sunday, 5 September 2011. Wendy Moore / CNN

By Dave Montgomery, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, with contributions from Anna Tinsley and Alex Branch
5 September 2011

BASTROP, Texas — Firefighters from across the state swarmed into Central Texas on Labor Day to combat devastating wildfires that left hundreds homeless and prompted Gov. Rick Perry to abruptly return from a scheduled East Coast political appearance.

At least 476 homes were destroyed in a massive Bastrop County fire that raged into second day after erupting on Sunday. Just over 50 miles to the east, fires also forced the evacuation of residents from an affluent subdivision near Lake Travis in the Austin Hill Country.

"We've got a long way to go to get this thing contained," Perry said at a press conference at the Bastrop Convention Center after touring the fire zone with U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin. Perry, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, flew back to Texas after bowing out of a presidential forum in South Carolina.

Perry's decision to temporarily leave the campaign trail underscored the devastation of wildfires that have scorched drought-ridden Texas from Possum Kingdom Lake in Palo Pinto County to a swath of Central Texas not far from the state's capital city of Austin.

Fueled by gusting winds – some stemming from Tropical Storm Lee — and drought conditions, the fires in Bastrop County stretched across more than 25,000 acres just a few miles outside of town, sending a towering cloud of gray smoke arching across the horizon. Up to 5,000 residents from largely rural neighborhoods were evacuated, but there were no reports of fatalities or injuries. […]

Over the weekend, the Texas Forest Service responded to 63 new fires that have burned approximately 32,936 acres, including new fires in Bastrop, Travis, Henderson, Limestone, Caldwell and Colorado counties, among others, according to the governor's office. The forest service was also battling existing wildfires, including major fires in Palo Pinto, Briscoe, Coryell and Montague counties. […]

The encroaching fires threatened historic structures in the Bastrop State Park, many of which were constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and also threatened the endangered Houston toad. Bastrop County's Lost Pines area is the nation's largest home for the largest known population of the small, reclusive amphibians. […]

Fire-fighter and emergency rescue teams from across the state poured into the area throughout the day, many of them fresh from battling grassfires elsewhere in Texas. Capt. Dan White of the DFW Airport Fire Rescue said his team of about 20 personnel had dealt with wildfires in Palo Pinto County and the Ennis area before arriving Bastrop County at mid-day Monday.

"It's the worst thing I've ever seen," White said after seeing the wall of gray and white smoke. […]

Since the beginning of wildfire season, local and state firefighters have responded to more than 20,900 fires that have destroyed more than 1,000 homes and burned more than 3.6 million acres, according to the governor's office.

Perry has reissued his disaster proclamation nine times this wildfire season. It was originally issued on Dec. 21, 2010.

Massive Texas wildfire destroys hundreds of homes

A golf course near Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas, is surrounded by burned-out homes and scorched grass and trees, 5 September 2011. McClatchy

BASTROP, Texas (CBS/AP) – Firefighters trying to control a wind-fueled wildfire that has destroyed nearly 500 homes in Central Texas were looking for a few overnight hours of diminished winds as thousands of evacuees spent the night away from their threatened homes.

There's been no significant rainfall over central Texas for a year, said CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds, and today the consequences of that are being seen in Bastrop and other areas.

Since December, wildfires have consumed 3.6 million acres of Texas - an area the size of the state of Connecticut.

Unfortunately, there is no rainfall in the forecast for the foreseeable future.

The Texas Forest Service put out statement saying, "This is unprecedented fire behavior. No one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions."

Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service, told CBS' "The Early Show" that as of this morning "There's no containment right now."

"We've been in a defensive mode for a couple of days now, and really all you can do is get people out of the way, protect homes where you can, and make sure our firefighters are safe," Boggus told anchor Erica Hill. "But today, the winds have died down so we can probably be much more aggressive, and we hopefully can get some containment on all these fires in the Austin area." […]

"It's historic. We've never seen fire seasons like this. We've never seen drought like this. This is an historic time that we're living in, and so people know and understand they've got to be extremely careful," Boggus said.

For Bastrop hotel owner Mona Patel, the wildfire left her no room to maneuver: "They just gave us the final warning to leave right now," she said. "It's scary. My mind's lost. I don't know what to do." […]

"Five minutes is all we had, five minutes," said Josephina Morales, one of the 400 people in emergency shelters right now. "I left with my clothes on my back and that was it.

"It was scary, when you go back to the driveway, it was just like two blocks, three blocks down the road," Morales said.

Scary is how many Texans are describing the scene: "We were just all scared, hoping that we have some kind of mercy if God sees us," said Mona Patel.

The wind came from Tropical Storm Lee, but not the rains - no moisture at all to stem the wildfire's rapid advance. […]

"No containment" of Texas wildfire



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