2 dead in Texas wildfires, homes destroyed
Updated: 2011-09-06 09:41
SAN ANTONIO - Sixty separate wildfires, whipped by strong winds, were burning across Texas on Monday, destroying hundreds of homes and killing at least two people, officials said.
Authorities in Gregg County, in northeast Texas, say a 20-year-old woman and her 18-month-old daughter were killed on Sunday when they were trapped in their mobile home by flames.
The Texas Forest Service estimates 424 homes may have been destroyed so far, including 300 from the so-called Bastrop County Complex fire east of Austin.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is running as a Republican presidential candidate, is cutting short his campaigning and returning from South Carolina to Texas on Monday.
"I urge Texans to take extreme caution as we continue to see the devastating effects of sweeping wildfires impacting both rural and urban areas of the state," Perry said in a statement.
Perry had been slated to participate in televised forum with other Republican candidates on Monday.
More than 3.6 million acres (1.5 million hectares) in Texas have been scorched by wildfires since November, fed by a continuing drought that has caused more than $5 billion in damage to the state's agricultural industry and shows no sign of easing any time soon.
The Texas Forest Service responded on Sunday to 63 new fires burning on more than 32,000 acres (13,000 hectares), including 22 new large fires.
Officials said the worst of the fires was the Bastrop County Complex fire, which stretched for 16 miles (26 km).
Officials said the fire had jumped a road that they had hoped to set up as a barrier, and has now spread to 25,000 acres (10,000 hectares).
"We have about 16 miles long at this time and about 6 miles wide (10 km)," said Bastrop County Fire Chief Ronnie McDonald.
Residents said the fire had moved very quickly, driven by the strong, gusty winds.
"It's pretty dire," Justice Jones of the Forest Service said on Monday morning.
The Bastrop Complex fire has forced the evacuation of several subdivisions in the county of 70,000 people.
"This is a shock," said one man as he drove out of the fire zone near Bastrop with his family. "We had some nice plans for Labor Day, and this gives you a sick feeling."
The Texas Forest Service said dozens of aircraft were responding to fires, including four heavy airtankers, 15 single-engine airtankers, and 13 aerial supervision aircraft.
In the Steiner Ranch area of Austin, a separate fire has forced the evacuation of some 1,000 homes. One woman desperately scanned the wall of thick black smoke and flames looking for her lost dog.
"I was just driving around the neighborhood, I'm five months pregnant, and I was taking in smoke and I was freaking out," she said. "I looked to the right of me and everything over there was full of fire, it was just gone."
About 200 homes had to be evacuated due to a brush fire in the Austin suburb of Pflugerville, and about 150 homes were evacuated in Longview, in east Texas. A dozen homes were under mandatory evacuation on Monday near Tyler in east Texas.