Wildfires sweep across Texas, charring 1 000 homes

Wildfires sweeping across drought-stricken Texas have destroyed more than 1 000 homes in the last several days as they move into more populated areas, Governor Rick Perry said on Tuesday.

Perry surveyed damage in west Austin on Tuesday, where dozens of homes have been destroyed and hundreds evacuated.

Speaking after his visit, the Texas governor, who left the presidential campaign trail to deal with the fires, said he hopes cooler temperatures and slowing winds on Tuesday will help firefighters contain more than 50 fires across the state.

“The magnitude of these losses are pretty stunning,” Perry said at a news conference in west Austin. “We’ve got a lot of Texans living in shelters now.”

Earlier in a television interview, Perry called the fires in central Texas “a very fluid and very critical” situation.

Schools were closed and churches were filled with evacuees across central Texas on Tuesday, and blazes were still being fought in north Texas near Fort Worth and east to Houston.

Nearly 600 homes have been destroyed in communities on the outskirts of Austin and nearby Bastrop County, a rural community about 65km south-east of the city.

More than 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.

Officials said the worst of the fires was the Bastrop County Complex fire, east of Austin, which stretched for 26km and more than 12 000 hectares.

Authorities said two people were killed on Sunday.

A small number of firefighters have been treated for heat-related issues, officials said, but no serious injuries have been reported among the hundreds of personnel on scene.

Perry, the front-runner among Republican presidential candidates, cancelled his appearance at a candidate roundtable in South Carolina on Monday to return to Austin.

He told reporters in Austin that he was focused on the firefighting effort and did not know whether he would attend a Republican candidates debate in California on Wednesday.

“We’ll deal with that as it shows up. I’m substantially more concerned with making sure Texans are being take care of,” he said.

Emergency shelters
In the past seven days, the Texas Forest Service has responded to 181 fires for nearly 48 000 hectares—and those were just the blazes being managed by the state.

The Bastrop County fire remained completely uncontained early on Tuesday.

Hundreds of residents there spent the night in emergency shelters set up in churches and schools.

“We can’t get back in to where the fire is burning so we can’t find out whether our house is still there,” said Donna Mathis, who fled her home with her family, two cars, and two dogs.

Winds from former Tropical Storm Lee, which had helped spread the fires over the weekend, died down overnight.

“Firefighters are certainly going to take advantage of any way we can leverage the wind,” said forest service spokesman Justice Jones.
“But we know, we certainly have a long fight ahead of us.”

Monday’s explosive growth of the Bastrop Complex fire was wind driven, with flames leaping from tree to tree at speeds of up to 100km/h, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

“Every resource in the state is committed,” Jones said. “This is becoming more of a marathon than a sprint for us.” - Reuters