A massive central Texas wildfire roared through ranchland and suburbs Monday, destroying nearly 500 homes — a state record for a single fire — as Gov. Rick Perry appealed for federal assistance to fight at least 63 blazes throughout the drought-dried state.
The pine forests of central and eastern Texas, the northern panhandle and the southern Houston suburbs have been hit by scores of fires that have destroyed 1,091 homes and consumed 3.6 million acres, roughly the size of Connecticut, since the fire season began in November. As the fires worsened this weekend, a woman and her 18-month-old died Sunday in a burning mobile home in Gregg County in eastern Texas.
On Monday, wind gusts generated by Tropical Storm Lee — which flooded some areas along the Gulf Coast — turned devilish in several parts of Texas and fanned the state’s largest and most destructive fire in Bastrop County, about 30 miles east of Austin
The fast-moving, uncontrolled blaze — burning in heat and wind conditions so severe that firefighters were unable to mount a land attack — forced about 5,000 evacuations and charred at least 25,000 acres, Texas Forest Service officials said. Plumes of smoke hovered over the county seat, a town of about 8,000 along the Colorado River.
Perry, a Republican presidential candidate, cut short a campaign trip to South Carolina to go to Bastrop on Monday. He said officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were expected to arrive in Texas as soon as Wednesday.
“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a wildfire season like this” since the 1980s, Perry said after surveying the Bastrop fire by helicopter. “We’ve got a long way to go to get this thing contained.”
Gary Bonnette was visiting family in San Antonio on Sunday afternoon when he heard of the wildfire. Bonnette, 59, a district court bailiff, rushed back to his home near Bastrop, nestled among loblolly pines.
But the fire was faster, racing across seven miles in 40 minutes and devouring everything in its path, including his 1970s Polynesian-themed subdivision, Tahitian Village.
By the time Bonnette arrived, the blaze had leveled his $195,000 dream home on Manawianui Drive and was threatening his $67,000 rental home nearby.
“It almost feels like the whole state of Texas is on fire now,” Bonnette said.
In Bastrop, more than 250 fire personnel were on hand, with planes and helicopters dumping water.
“There’s practically a fleet of aircraft in the air,” said Jan Amen, a Forest Service spokeswoman in Bastrop. “Problem is, we have to share them with other fires because there’s so many burning in the area.”
Officials in the Austin area called for help from all volunteer firefighters and were expecting added fire crews and equipment from as far as California.
“We have exhausted our resources,” said Melanie Spradling, a spokeswoman for the Texas Forest Service based in the eastern city of Lufkin.
Ed Brown, a Forest Service spokesman in the Houston area, said Tropical Storm Lee had done more harm than good, dropping little rain and whipping up winds statewide.
“All the hardwood trees are shedding leaves, a lot of the oak trees are drying and the pine trees, the needles are turning sort of a yellowish tint. They’re drought-stressed,” Brown said. “The fires get into the roots because they’re so dry.”
The drought has also made it tough for helicopter crews to find water to douse the flames, he said.
“Most of your ponds, creeks and rivers are down to a trickle,” he said.
Julie Hart, a Bastrop City Council member who runs a bed-and-breakfast in town, said residents knew dry conditions in recent years would lead to fires. They watched reports about California wildfires last year and held their breath, she said. They figured firefighters could minimize the damage by using the river and highways to contain the blazes.
“The thing that’s scary about this one is it’s moving so quickly and it’s jumped highways and rivers,” she said. “No one’s sure where it’s going to go. The winds are 20 to 30 mph and everywhere you look, there’s smoke.”
Flames even engulfed the banks of the Colorado River in Bastrop on Monday, making it difficult for firefighters to retrieve water, she said.
At Vandegrift High School, one of four temporary shelters for evacuees, about 200 people claimed pallet beds on the gym floor and waited for officials to post a “street sheet” detailing which homes were damaged and destroyed.
“We have a lot of people who are very anxious,” said Tom Davis, a spokesman for the American Red Cross of Central Texas staffing the shelter.
Bonnette on Monday was staying at Hart’s bed-and-breakfast, the Magnolia Inn on Main. He said he hoped to return to his neighborhood soon to see the damage. All he could see from a distance late Monday was a column of white smoke. Occasionally the smoke turned black, and Bonnette sensed that another home had burned.
“I really wish that we had had the resources to fight this type of fire,” he said. “There’s no end in sight right now.”