Image: Destroye homes
Eric Gay  /  AP
Homes destroyed by the fire in Bastrop, Texas, are seen Sept. 7.
msnbc.com news services
updated 9/20/2011 6:34:19 PM ET 2011-09-20T22:34:19

A dead tree and tree branches that fell on two separate power lines likely caused a massive central Texas wildfire that killed two people and destroyed more than 1,500 homes, the Texas Forest Service said Tuesday.

The fire began Labor Day weekend and burned for several days, blackening more than 50 square miles. It forced thousands to flee their homes for days about 25 miles east of Austin.

Texas is in the midst of one of its worst wildfire outbreaks in state history due to a perilous mix of hot temperatures, strong winds and historic drought. The Bastrop-area fire was the largest of the nearly 190 Texas wildfires that erupted in early September.

Drenching rains in central Texas over the weekend have allowed crews to bring the devastating fire, the worst in Texas history in terms of property loss, to 95 percent containment.

But the rains will do little to end the devastating drought that has contributed to the worst wildfire season in the state's history, and officials say the outlook is grim as Texas heads into a dry fall.

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.

"Things are far from being back to normal," said Warren Bielenberg of the Forest Service. "The majority of fuels in Texas are dry grasslands. It only takes an hour of sunshine to get them back to the level where they will burn. It is still a very dangerous situation."

For that reason, he says the army of firefighters that descended on Texas since Labor Day weekend will remain on standby.

There are firefighters from every state in the nation except Hawaii, and they have worked to push back dozens of fires which have destroyed tens of thousands of acres in just the past three weeks.

Almost all of the state's 254 counties have burn bans in place. In addition, some counties have outlawed barbecuing, major cities like Austin, Houston and San Antonio have banned smoking in all city parks, and the Texas Department of Transportation's "Don't Mess with Texas" anti-litter program has been expanded to include a website where Texans can snitch on motorists who flick cigarettes out of their car windows.

At the Bastrop Complex fire, command of the situation is being returned to local officials after weeks of national teams on the ground.

A wide array of agencies have descended on the area, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to help people like Duncan Black.

In Bastrop County, where thousands of acres of pine trees were scorched by the fire, Black surveyed the remains of his burned out home this week and said he is uncertain whether to rebuild.

"I don't know," he said. "A lot of the reason we lived here in the first place looks like it doesn't exist any more. We're really going to have to think about it."

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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Video: ‘We play football again in Bastrop’

  1. Closed captioning of: ‘We play football again in Bastrop’

    >>> well, it's friday night in texas and that can mean only one thing -- football. but there are actually other things on people's minds tonight including the drought that seems about as bad as it can get. 97% of the state is already experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions . tonight we learn weather patterns show it could last through winter. one of the hardest hit communities is bastrop where wildfires destroyed almost 2,000 homes, but they are not giving up. and it showed last night under the lights on the football field . here's nbc's jay gray.

    >> we play football again in bastrop . you understand? we play football again in bastrop . this is bigger than a football game , guys. i hope you understand that. you see what's all around you. it's a great opportunity for our community to come together tonight.

    >> reporter: their first chance to come together outside of a command post or shelter.

    >> we can heal. we can cheer. we can have some fun.

    >> reporter: for the last couple of weeks, fun -- like most everything else here -- has seemed to melt away.

    >> we rebuild. do you understand?

    >> yes, sir.

    >> rebuild right now.

    >> let's go!

    >> rebuild right now.

    >> reporter: high school football is about lessons, life lessons that for the last couple of weeks for these kids and even the coaches have been the harshest and hardest they have ever had to learn. the home field bleachers are filled with fans, many who don't have homes now. 11 players, three cheerleaders and at least one coach have lost everything but they still have each other.

    >> nice to see everybody getting back to some sense of normalcy.

    >> reporter: a lot of texans will tell you high school football is a religion in their state, maybe never more so than right now and height right -- right here in bastrop , a community that desperately needs some salvation. on this night the loudest cheers are reserved for a special group that worked to save them. at halftime a team of first responders takes the field, many just off the fire lines.

    >> means a lot to come down and help out.

    >> reporter: but it means so much more to the survivors.

    >> thank you for fighting the fire.

    >> reporter: and as the focus turned back to the game, the bears are able to pull out the win though clearly the score can't be measured in touchdowns or field goals .

    >> you're not going to know what you just did for your community. okay? it will sink in one day. you just brought us all back together.

    >> reporter: in this community, so does tragedy, forging a bond that can't be broken or burned away. jay gray, nbc news.

    >> thank you.

    >> reporter: bastrop , texas.

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