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Texas wildfires destroy 1,000 homes
At least four people killed and thousands evacuated as more than 180 wildfires rage across rain-starved US state.
Last Modified: 07 Sep 2011 08:39

A devastating wildfire outbreak in Texas has burned down more than 1,000 homes and stretched firefighters to the limit, confronting Rick Perry, the US state's governor, with a disaster at home just as the Republican presidential contest heats up.

More than 180 fires have erupted in the past week across the rain-starved state, with nearly 600 of the homes lost in one catastrophic blaze in and around Bastrop, near Austin, that raged out of control on Tuesday for a third day.

Whipped into an inferno by winds from Tropical Storm Lee over the weekend, the blaze burned more than 116 square kilometres, killing at least two people and bringing the overall death toll from the outbreak to at least four.

Al Jazeera's Andy Gallacher, reporting from Bastrop, said thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes, some with only minutes to escape.

"Hundreds of families are being housed in hotels and community centers here in Bastrop," said Gallacher.

"The overriding question is: Will they have homes to return to?"

'Stunning' losses

Perry cut short a presidential campaign trip to South Carolina to deal with the crisis.

On Tuesday, he toured a blackened area near Bastrop, about 40km from Austin, and later deployed the state's elite search team to the area to look for more possible victims.

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

The governor would not say whether he would take part in Wednesday evening's Republican presidential debate in California, explaining that he was "substantially more concerned about making sure Texans are being taken care of".

Perry, a favourite of the conservative tea-party movement who has made a career out of railing against government spending, said he expects federal assistance with the wildfires.

He complained that red tape was keeping bulldozers and other heavy equipment at the army's Fort Hood base, 120km from Bastrop, from being putting to use.

Fort Hood was battling its own fire, a 1,500-hectare blaze, according to the AP news agency.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration of President Barack Obama has approved seven federal grants to Texas to help with the latest outbreak.

He said "we will continue to work closely with the state and local emergency management officials as their efforts to contain these fires".

Year-long drought

About 1,200 firefighters battled the blazes, including members of local departments from around the state and crews from out of state, many of them arriving after Texas put out a call for help.

More firefighters will join the battle once they have been registered and sent where they are needed.

Five heavy tanker planes, some from the federal government, and three aircraft capable of scooping 1,500 gallons of water at a time from lakes also took part in the fight.

"We're getting incredible support from all over the country, federal and state agencies," said Mark Stanford, operations director for the Texas Forest Service.

The disaster is blamed largely on Texas' year-long 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.

Source:
Agencies
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