BASTROP, Texas â€” Firefighters from across the state swarmed into central Texas on Labor Day to combat devastating wildfires that left hundreds homeless and prompted Texas 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.
â€œWeâ€™ve got a long way to go to get this thing contained,â€ Perry said at a news conference at the Bastrop Convention Center after touring the fire zone with U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas.
Perry, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, flew back to Texas after bowing out of a presidential forum in South Carolina.
Perryâ€™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, west of Fort Worth, to a swath of land not far from the stateâ€™s capital city of Austin.
Fueled by gusting winds â€” some stemming from Tropical Storm Lee â€” 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.
â€œIt was a surreal experience,â€ Perry said after seeing the fire zone. â€œI have seen a number of big fires in my life. This one is as mean-looking as I ever seen because it is so close to the city.â€
Perry said he planned to immediately request federal disaster relief for Texas fire victims. The Obama administration turned down an earlier Perry request for wildfire relief but the Republican governor said that he hopes the new request will be â€œanswered swiftly.â€
Although Bastrop County was the scene of the worst outbreak, fires also destroyed at least 25 homes in the Steiner Ranch subdivision of Travis County, a picturesque hill country development just a few miles from Lake Travis, and forced the evacuation of 1,000 homes. About 20 homes were destroyed in a fire that spread across 7,000 acres southeast of Spicewood, another Travis County community, said officials.
Over the weekend, the Texas Forest Service responded to 63 new fires that have burned approximately 32,936 acres, according to the governorâ€™s office. The forest service was also battling existing wildfires, including major fires in Palo Pinto, Briscoe, Coryell and Montague counties.
The fire in Bastrop County ignited from unknown origins and spread southwestward, eventually combining with another fire. Pine trees that have given the area the nickname â€œThe Lost Pinesâ€ contributed to the fires, officials said, explaining that dried pine needles apparently fueled the flames.
Although the worst devastation occurred east of Bastrop, a new threat erupted late Monday morning in the Cedar Creek neighborhood west of town, when wildfires spread through dried brush and grass, forcing the evacuation of dozens of homeowners. Fire officials said the fires were apparently started by a downed power line that touched off a grass fire.
â€œIâ€™ve got to get out of here,â€ said 64-year-old Urban Graf, a retired Marine, as gray smoke wafted across the yard of his four-bedroom, three-bath home. Graf asked a reporter to drive his red 2011 Chevrolet Camaro to safety while he loaded his three dogs and a cat in another vehicle to escape the approaching fires.
Graf said he had gone into Bastrop to offer help to others but quickly returned after learning about the new fire in his rural neighborhood. He said he bought the home, now valued at about $300,000, nearly two decades ago. â€œI guess Iâ€™m going to lose it,â€ he said as he prepared to evacuate.
Suellen Payne, who lives in a century-old home in Bastropâ€™s downtown historic district, turned her residence into a temporary refuge for more than 15 friends who were forced to abandon their homes when the worst of the fires engulfed the eastern portion of the county over the weekend.
One of the guests, Leigh Ann Cloutier, said she hadnâ€™t been able to get any information on her home for at least 24 hours but feared the worst.
Ernestina and Tony Balderas huddled in a parked van with their eight children after gathering up â€œa few clothesâ€ and their new computer to escape a fire near their neighborhood. â€œWeâ€™re worried about where weâ€™re going to go and what weâ€™re going to do,â€ said Ernestina Balderas.