Video: Texas sets US heat record

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    >>> the national weather service said today texas had the hottest summer of any state ever on record. the average temperature was 86.8 degrees, it was hotter and drier than during the dust bowl . we're dealing with the consequences of this extreme weather , the massive wildfires.

    >> reporter: calmer winds and cooler temperatures are giving strike teams a fighting chance along the front lines.

    >> in this stage of the fire, it's critical that we do not allow those hot spots to get larger in size, and cause the fire to kind of wake up again.

    >> reporter: but make no mistake, the wildfires in texas are still far from sleeping. in bastrop, only 30% contained, burning across more than 35,000 acres and today the number of homes destroyed has more than doubled from 576 to almost 1,400 now. but those numbers, the maps and charts don't mean so much for a special group of survivors.

    >> i'm scared.

    >> reporter: this morning, on the doors of the command center , a series of handwritten notes appeared. the crayons and markers painting a picture of the wildfire through the eyes of the children.

    >> the fire came by the house and the house is not getting burned.

    >> reporter: their words are simple but so telling. one of the notes reads, we haven't seen our house in three days, we don't know if you saved it, but thank you for trying. and 4-year-old jessica smith understands that fear.

    >> i'm sad.

    >> reporter: 12-year-old devon davenport tried to stay strong. the hardest loss for devon is his dog.

    >> i couldn't get him out.

    >> reporter: tears are unfortunately the only significant water texas has seen or will see for a while. and that's not nearly enough to stop the fires, but the pain and the damage here continues to grow.

msnbc.com news services
updated 9/8/2011 6:43:12 PM ET 2011-09-08T22:43:12

A monstrous fire burning southeast of Austin has destroyed 1,386 homes, more than any other blaze in Texas history, county officials said on Thursday.

The devastating new number — nearly triple what officials had said earlier in the week — is the county's "best estimate" of the 35,000-acre fire that's been ripping through this rural, historic community about 25 miles east of Austin since Sunday, said Bastrop County Emergency Coordinator Mike Fisher.

"This is based on everything we had in (the count) before, plus a house by house and driveway by driveway count we did last night," Fisher said.

Officials said that number is likely to increase as the count continues.

Story: Astronauts spot Texas wildfires from space

The blaze has killed two people, forced the evacuation of 5,000 and was about 30 percent contained Thursday, officials said. Active flames were behind containment lines and some residents evacuated from unburned areas were allowed to return to their homes.

More than 3.6 million acres 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 that shows no sign of easing.

Bastrop County, with a population around 75,000 and an average income of $27,499 a year per resident, has been particularly hard hit. The region has been declared a federal disaster area and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been on the ground since Tuesday doing damage assessments.

Smoldering hot spots remained across the 45 square miles, but flames were inside the lines surrounding about 30 percent of the fire area, officials said.

Rudy Evenson, spokesman for an interagency team assisting the Texas Forest Service, said Thursday's major concern was wind sparking more flames beyond those boundaries.

PhotoBlog: X marks the spot - charred crossroads near Bastrop

County Judge Ronnie McDonald warned residents not to return to their neighborhoods until re-entry plans were announced later Thursday.

"Respect the firefighters," he said. "Let them go in and do their jobs."

Image: Homes destroyed by wildfire are seen in Bastrop, Texas.
Eric Gay  /  AP
Homes destroyed by wildfire are seen in Bastrop, Texas. The fire has destroyed more than 600 homes and blackened about 45 square miles in and around Bastrop.

The footprint of the fire, according to the Texas Forest Service, is a massive 20 miles by 24 miles, and the flames have turned entire neighborhoods into blackened moonscapes of burned out vehicles and crusts that used to be homes.

'Everything's gone now'
"We had a lovely home, and we had a nice neighborhood, and it's gone. We just have to accept that," said Betty Porterfield, who was anxiously scouring lists of destroyed homes posted at a Bastrop area shelter.

Like many others, Cindy Murdoch does not know if she will see her home again.

"There is so much loss around me," she said. "It's not just me."

Dennis Silman was in line at the store when his wife's urgent call came through: They needed to get out. Smoke was drifting up through the woods and the wildfire that just 30 minutes earlier wasn't near enough to pose a problem was visible over the treetops by the time he got home.

Story: Texas sets record for hottest summer in US

In just 90 minutes, Silman was able to make four trips loading clothes and a few important possessions into his Mustang. He could feel the blaze's heat and hear the crackling roar as he packed his car. Less than two hours after they drove away for the last time Sunday, the Bastrop Complex fire consumed his home and six other houses of relatives who all lived within about four square miles of each other.

"My house, my sister-in-law, her brother, my mother-in-law and three brothers-in-law houses are gone," the 53-year-old bail bondsman said Wednesday outside the county convention center where he came to find out about federal assistance. "Everything's gone now."

Officials on Thursday allowed some of the 5,000 evacuated area residents to return to neighborhoods untouched by fire and no longer considered threatened, but authorities declined to specify exactly how many were being allowed to go back.

The move, however, wasn't enough to console weary evacuees still unable to check on homes in burned areas.

One man shouted "when are you going to let us in?" While another pointedly asked the sheriff how his home would be protected while he was shut out, but neighbors 100 yards away were let in. Even those who remained calm expressed frustration.

"We're just that far from being able to go back in there," said Evelyn Goodrich, pointing to the couple blocks that separated her home from the new roadblock position. "We've been trying every day and they stop us."

State scorched
The Bastrop County fire is the biggest, but it is far from the only wildfire burning in Texas right now. Forest service officials say more than three dozen fires are burning across the state, consuming 120,000 acres and driving thousands of people from their homes.

A fast moving fire which started Wednesday night on Camp Stanley, a military training ground northwest of San Antonio, quickly jumped the fence and forced evacuations in the upscale suburb of Fair Oaks Ranch.

"I just got my two dogs and got out," said Roy Gombert, who, like most wildfire evacuees, had to leave with little but the clothes on his back.

Gombert and others were allowed to return to their homes when helicopters dumped fire retardant on the fires, containing them. But Bexar County Fire Marshal Ross Coleman says one of the things stretching fire departments thin is the need to keep crews on the scene of extinguished fires, to make sure they do not flare up again.

"I think we're going to look at a four day event, when it comes to mopping and cleaning up and making sure it doesn't flare up," Coleman said, adding that the fire Wednesday night was a rekindle of a previous fire which had been extinguished the night before.

An array of aircraft has been called in to fight the fires, including six heavy air tankers, three 1500 gallon scoopers, 15 single engine air tankers, 12 helicopters, and 12 aerial supervision aircraft .

Slideshow: Wildfires scorch Texas (on this page)

Eight Blackhawk and three Chinook helicopters from the Texas National Guard have been providing aerial support. Ten Tanker, a retrofitted DC-10 aircraft which can dump 12,000 gallons of flame retardant or water at a pass will be activated for use in Texas blazes on Friday.

The last several weeks have been extremely destructive for fires, which have burned or threatened nearly every county in Texas, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told reporters in a news conference Wednesday afternoon. Drought, low humidity, high winds and no rain have created tinderbox conditions.

So far, four people have died in fires the broke out across the state over the Labor Day weekend , including a mother and infant daughter who died in northeast Texas on Sunday.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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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