Photos: Wildfires scorch Texas

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  1. Courtney Hughes sits in the car as her family decides where to spend the night as residents along Kickapoo Road evacuate Waller County, Texas, on Wednesday. (Mayra Beltran / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fairchild, Texas, volunteer firefighter Dale Oberhoff gives his wife, Jackie, a kiss on the still smoldering ground after battling a grass fire near Needville, Texas, on Wednesday. (Patric Schneider / The Courier via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A panoramic view taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station shows wildfires burning in Texas on Wednesday. (Nasa / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Firefighters put out hot spots at a grass fire off Foster School Road near Needville, Texas, on Wednesday. (Patric Schneider / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. People walk near a vehicle at an intersection in the fire-ravaged area of Bastrop, Texas, on Wednesday. (William Luther / ASSOCIATED PRESS) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Montgomery, Texas, firefighter Reed Griffith crosses flames south of Todd Mission, Texas, on Wednesday. (Mayra Beltran / Houston Chronicle via P) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An aerial view shows burned houses and trees Sept. 7, east of Bastrop, Texas. Several large wildfires have been devastating Bastrop County for the past three days, but are now 30 percent contained, according to the Texas Forest Service. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Gaye Jaco (back to camera) hugs stepdaughter Jennifer Leaver upon returning to their burned home on the east side of Lake Bastop on Tuesday, Sept. 6, outside Bastrop, Texas. Large large wildfires have been burning through Bastrop County for the past two days, and two people were reported dead Sept. 6. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A burned-out house and cars are seen Sept. 6 near Magnolia. More than 1,000 homes have been destroyed in wildfires across rain-starved Texas, most of them in one devastating blaze near Austin that was still raging out of control. (Smiley N. Pool / Houston Chronical via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A statue of a woman holding a water bucket stands in front of the remnants of a burned home on the east side of Lake Bastop on Sept. 6. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Deborah Torkelson consoles her husband, Nathan, as they stand atop their destroyed home on Cardinal Loop in the Bastrop, Texas, Circle D Estates neighborhood on Sept. 6. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A firefighting helicopter loads up with water from a pond at the Lost Pines Golf Club as they fight a fire in Bastrop State Park on Sept. 6. (Erich Schlegel / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Ed Leighton looks through a box of papers Sept. 6 in what remains of his home that burned to the ground on Bluejay Road in Bastrop, Texas. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Parts of a car melted in the Bastrop, Texas, Circle D Estates neighborhood on Sept. 6. (Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Smoke from a wildfire hangs in the sky over Bastrop Sept. 6. Officials hoped that calmer winds would help firefighters battling wildfires that had destroyed about 1,000 homes in Texas and forced thousands of residents to flee. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Massive plumes of smoke block the sky on Highway 71 east of Bastrop on Sept. 5.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Chuck Tomlin uses a shovel to stop a fire in the back yard of a home in Bastrop's Tahitian Village neighborhood on Sept. 5. Tomlin volunteered to knock down flames that were just a few feet from the house of a neighbor he had never met.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Ryan Joseph Terranova packs up his belongings moments before evacuating his home at the Tahitian Village Apartments in Bastrop as a huge fire approaches on Sept. 5.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A plane drops fire retardant on a house in Bastrop's Tahitian Village neighborhood on Sept. 5.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Yolanda Rodriguez, left, comforts neighbor Virginia Esquivel in front of Esquivel's gutted home on Bois D'Arc Lane in Cedar Park on Sept. 4. Two homes on the block were destroyed, and a third was damaged.


    See more Austin American-Statesman photographic coverage of the wildfires.

    (Jay Janner / Austin American-Stateman) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Firefighters battle a large wildfire on Highway 71 near Smithville on Sept. 5. A roaring wildfire raced unchecked through rain-starved farm and ranchland in Texas, during a rapid advance fanned in part by howling winds from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee. (Erich Schlegel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. The chimney of a house remains standing as the rest of the building burns to the ground near Bastrop on Sept. 5. (Mike Stone / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Students from a local 4-H group drop off bottled water for firefighters and displaced residents at Magnolia High School where residents evacuated from their homes near a 300-acre wildfire gathered on Sept. 5. Nearly 8,000 residents in the Magnolia area were evacuated from their homes. (Eric S. Swist / The Courier via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Clarence Hoffman, left, and his son, Allen Hoffman, battle ground flames as they try to prevent the fire from advancing to the home of Patrick McAlister near Bastrop on Sept. 5. (Mike Stone / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. J Cindy Cruz wipes tears from her eyes as Texas Gov. Rick Perry talks with her at Bastrop Middle School in Bastrop on Sept. 5. (Alberto Martìnez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Residents evacuate their animals as a wildfire threatens the area near Sleepy Hollow Road and Post Oak Drive in Conroe, Texas, on Sept. 5. (Karl Anderson / The Courier via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A wildfire burns out of control in Bastrop State Park near Bastrop on Sept. 5. (Larry W. Smith / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A large plume of smoke rises from a wildfire as onlookers watch from a hill on Sept. 5, in Bastrop. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Particia Bloodworth-Neville and her daughter Bailey Neville, 12, watch from Bluebonnet Volunteer Fire Station as a wildfire consumes land around their central Texas home on Sept. 5 in Bastrop. (Trent Lesikar / The Daily Texan via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Lone Camp Volunteer Fire Department firefighter Joe Crawford fights a wildfire on Sept. 1 in Graford, Texas. (Tom Pennington / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Mike Hester holds a cat he rescued from an area destroyed by a wildfire at Possum Kingdom Lake on Aug. 31. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. An air tanker drops fire retardant on a hot spot at Possum Kingdom Lake on Aug. 31 after a wildfire swept through the area. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer looks over an area destroyed by a wildfire at Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas, on Wednesday, Aug. 31. The wildfire swept through the neighborhood Tuesday, Aug. 30, destroying 25 homes and turning the normally lush landscape into a blackened mess. (LM Otero / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Eric Kemper holds a cup which reads 'It's a girl' as he looks through the debris of his home after it was destroyed by fire as wildfires burn out of control near Bastrop, Texas September 6, 2011. Wildfires sweeping across drought-stricken Texas have destroyed more than 1,000 homes and forced thousands of evacuations in the past several days, officials said. The worst of the fires, the Bastrop County Complex fire located about 30 miles/48 km southeast of Austin in the central part of the state, has destroyed up to 600 homes, the most of any single fire in Texas history. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER) (Mike Stone / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 9/6/2011 10:07:04 PM ET 2011-09-07T02:07:04

One of the most devastating wildfire outbreaks in Texas history left more than 1,000 homes in ruins Tuesday and stretched the state's firefighting ranks to the limit, confronting Gov. Rick Perry with a major disaster at home just as the GOP presidential contest heats up.

More than 180 fires have erupted in the past week across the rain-starved Lone Star State, and nearly 600 of the homes destroyed since then were lost in one catastrophic blaze in and around Bastrop, near Austin. That blaze raged out of control Tuesday for a third day.

Whipped into an inferno by Tropical Storm Lee's winds over the weekend, the blaze burned at least 40 square miles, forced the evacuation of thousands and killed at least two people, bringing the overall death toll from the outbreak to at least four.

"We lost everything," said Willie Clements, whose two-story colonial home in a neighborhood near Bastrop was reduced to a heap of metal roofing and ash. A picket fence was melted. Some goats and turkeys survived, but about 20 chickens and ducks were burned to death in a coop that went up in flames.

PhotoBlog: Dramatic images of Texas wildfire

On Tuesday, Clements and his family took a picture of themselves in front of a windmill adorned with a charred red, white and blue sign that proclaimed, "United We Stand."

"This is the beginning of our new family album," the 51-year-old Clements said.

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 25 miles from Austin, and later deployed the state's elite search team to the area to look for more possible victims. Texas Task Force 1 is the same outfit sent to New York following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"Pretty powerful visuals of individuals who lost everything," he said. "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." But campaign spokesman Mark Miner said in an email later in the day that the governor planned to be at the event.

Perry, a Tea-Party favorite who has made a career out of railing against government spending, said he expects federal assistance with the wildfires, and he complained that red tape was keeping bulldozers and other heavy equipment at the Army's Fort Hood, 75 miles from Bastrop, from being used in the fight.

"It's more difficult than it should be to get those types of assets freed up by the federal government," he said. "When you've got people hurting, when you've got lives that are in danger in particular, I really don't care who the asset belongs to. If it's sitting in some yard somewhere and not helping be part of the solution, that's a problem."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration has approved seven federal grants to Texas to help with the latest outbreak, and "we will continue to work closely with the state and local emergency management officials as their efforts to contain these fires."

About 1,200 firefighters battled the blazes, including members of local departments from around the state and crews from such places as Utah, California, Arizona and Oregon, 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' yearlong drought, one of the most severe dry spells the state has ever seen.

Speaking on NBC's TODAY, Perry said that the effect on people who had lost their homes as "devastating."

"We're a long way from having these under control," Perry told TODAY.

He urged residents to follow evacuation orders and not put their lives in danger for the sake of their possessions. "I know leaving a home and possessions behind is a hard thing to do, but don't put lives in danger," he said.

He assured TODAY's Matt Lauer that he was able to deal with the fires while also running for president.

"Unfortunately in Texas, we have substantial natural disasters, whether its hurricanes, wildfires, floods, you name it, tornadoes, we've had to deal with them," Perry said.

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.

At least 11 other fires exceeded 1,000 acres Tuesday, including an 8,000-acre blaze in Caldwell County, next to Bastrop County. At least six homes were lost in a fire 40 percent contained. In far Northeast Texas' Cass County, a 7,000-acre fire burned in heavy timberland. And in Grimes County, about 40 miles northwest of Houston, a 3,000-acre fire destroyed nearly two dozen homes and threatened hundreds more.

NBC-affiliate station KPRC reported Tuesday that about 8,000 people had been evacuated from their homes in the Magnolia area in Montgomery County, citing fire officials. At least 80 homes and one fire truck have burned, officials said.

Tina Dulaney packed up her car, grabbed her dogs and went to the shelter at Magnolia High School, the station reported.

"Pretty scared," she told KPRC. "You just don't know. The wind's not helping. I just have to wait and see."

Evacuation orders were also in effect in Grimes and Waller counties. "What can you do? Especially with something like that that just pops up so quick and wipes out everything. At least for a hurricane or something like that, you can prepare for it. You can’t prepare for a fire. There’s no way," evacuee Leslie Dedeke told KHOU.

In at least one neighborhood in Bastrop, flames hop-scotched a street where houses were tucked among oaks, pines and cedar trees. Some homes survived; others were gone.

The Postal Service delivered mail to homes that had burned to the ground; only the mailboxes were left stand.

Some residents were surprised by how quickly the blaze engulfed their neighborhoods.

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"We were watching TV and my brother-in-law said to come and see this," said Dave Wilhelm, who lives just east of Bastrop. "All I saw was a fireball and some smoke. All of a sudden: Boom! We looked up and left."

Wilhelm returned on Tuesday to find his neighbor's house and three vehicles gone. Some of his children's backyard toys were destroyed, but the Wilhelm house was spared.

"Some stuff is smoldering on the lot behind us," he said. "Inside of the house, we smell like a campfire. We're definitely very lucky."

John Chapman's home on about 20 acres was only singed a little bit and had some smoke damage, but the vintage-car collector lost about 175 vehicles he kept in a garage or under pole barns. His losses included about a dozen Corvettes and a Shelby Cobra.

As ashes swirled and tree stumps still spit flames, the 70-year-old Chapman pointed out the melted remains of a 1966 Pontiac GTO, a '57 Chevrolet pickup and a 1947 Studebaker pickup, and said: "You can either laugh or you can cry. You might as well laugh."

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"The house is safe, my wife and I are alive and good, and I'm not going to worry about it," he said.

For Perry, the crisis carries both opportunity and risk, said Todd Harris, a Republican consultant who has worked on a number of presidential campaigns.

"It gives Perry an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, to demonstrate decisiveness and at the same time empathy and caring, which are four qualities that most voters look for in a president," Harris said.

But he added: "You can't do anything that looks sounds, or smells even remotely political. If it looks like you are taking advantage of a disaster and trying to use it for political purposes, it will backfire and you'll be worse off than if you hadn't done anything."

About 40 people who fled their homes were staying at a community center in the town of Paige. A volunteer, Debbie Barrington, said some people have been sleeping outside on picnic tables under a pavilion, eating food and using toiletries donated by folks not hurt by the fires.

"The first night, we had a child 17 months old," she said. "We didn't have milk. The next morning, I think we had eight gallons. People heard what we needed and brought it in. The response has been unreal."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Texas wildfires burning out of control

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