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Texas wildfires destroy more than 1,000 homes

Texas wildfires destroy more than 1,000 homes

September 7th, 2011 in News

Sisters Laura, left, and Michelle Clements survey their fire-destroyed home Tuesday in Bastrop, Texas. The Clements lost their home to fires Monday.

BASTROP, Texas (AP) - 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 at least 40 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.

The crisis represents a test of leadership for Perry, who cut short a presidential campaign trip to South Carolina on Monday to return home. On Tuesday, he toured a blackened area near Bastrop, which is about 25 miles from Austin.

"Pretty powerful visuals of individuals who lost everything," he said. "The magnitude of these losses are pretty stunning."

Perry, a tea-party favorite who has made a career out of railing against government spending, said he expects federal assistance with the wildfires, and he complained that red tape was keeping bulldozers and other heavy equipment at the Army's Fort Hood, 75 miles from Bastrop, from being used in the fight.

About 370 firefighters battled the blazes, many of them arriving from out of state after Texas called in help. Five heavy tanker planes, some from the federal government, and three aircraft that scooped water 1,500 gallons at a time from lakes took part in the fight.

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 Caldwell County, next to Bastrop 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.