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Thousands flee as wildfire torches 300 Texas homes

A fast-growing wildfire fanned by winds from Tropical Storm Lee torched an estimated 300 homes near Austin on Sunday, and families in hundreds more homes have had to evacuate.
/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

A fast-growing wildfire fanned by winds from Tropical Storm Lee torched an estimated 300 homes near Austin on Sunday, and thousands of people in hundreds more homes had to evacuate overnight.

"It's catastrophic," Texas Forest Service Fire Chief Mark Stanford was quoted by the Austin American-Statesman website as saying. "It's a major natural disaster."

The fire had burned through 14,000 acres and was 16 miles long, threatening some 700 more homes in Bastrop County, just east of Austin. Aerial units estimated that 300 homes were destroyed or damaged.

In neighboring Travis County, fires caused evacuations and burned homes in neighborhoods to the north and west of Austin.

The fires have caused officials in Austin to ask local media for help in contacting every available firefighter in the area to help with the blazes.

In East Texas, meanwhile, a woman and her young child were killed when a fire raced through their home some 100 miles east of Dallas.

Rural neighborhoods in the East Texas counties of Smith, Van Zandt, Gregg and Houston were evacuated because of scattered, fast-moving wildfires in those areas.

"We're a little on edge right now," Texas Forest Service spokesman Tom Berglund told Reuters on Sunday. "We have several fires that we thought we had put out, but these winds came up today and started them up again."

Berglund said that in addition to feeding the fires, the winds are also drying out any humidity brought in by the tropical storm, prompting officials to issue a "critical fire danger" alert for the eastern two thirds of Texas. A red-flag wind advisory was also in effect for parts of Texas.

The wind is causing problems for firefighters who are battling a dozen brush and grass fires all over the state.

"It sure would have been nice had this storm moved a little to the west and parked itself over Texas for a couple of days," said Ed Levy, a meteorologist at the Weather Channel.

Adding to the danger are thousands of dove hunters fanning into the woods on the first weekend of the state's huge mourning dove season, and the increased outdoor activities caused by the Labor Day Weekend, officials said.

"The fire danger we are experiencing poses a severe threat to lives and property," said Stanford. "This, along with the outdoor activities due to the holiday weekend, will increase the probability for the development of huge and destructive brush fires."

Berglund said firefighters also responded to at least two fires Sunday caused by barbecue pits that went out of control due to the wind.

One brush fire that scorched several acres was caused by "a juvenile burning love letters," Berglund said.

"I think he was a little surprised that more than the letters ended up burning," he said.

In Corsicana, about 50 miles south of Dallas, a wildfire spread to and destroyed eight metal industrial shop buildings inside the city. Mayor Chuck McClanahan said fire crews were fighting to keep the flames from reaching wooden structures.

Three wildfires had spread to a total of 2,000 acres and prompted an evacuation of Navarro, a town of about 200 residents about eight miles southeast of Corsicana, and a sparsely settled rural area close to the nearby town of Mildred.

As for rain, most Texans are going to have to wait a little longer to see the end of a drought that has already caused more than $5 billion in economic losses.

Strong, gusty winds whipping up the wildfires that have burned more than 3.5 million acres of the parched state this season.

Southeast Texas as far west as parts of Houston got showers from Lee, Levy said, but they caused more trouble than good.

At one point, about 18,000 CenterPoint Energy customers in the Houston area were without electricity, due mainly to power lines downed by gusty winds.

A cold front coming into Texas, while it will not bring rain, will bring another kind of relief: the end of triple-digit temperatures.

August in Texas was the hottest single month ever recorded in the state. Most areas have seen little respite from daily highs over 100 degrees since mid-July.

High temperatures for most of the state will be in the 90s, but that will feel like a January blizzard to heat weary Texans, Levy said. Forecasts called for lows dipping into the 50s and 60s across Texas throughout the sunny, dry week.

"We'll get rain one of these days," Levy promised. "We need a lot, and the problem is, we'll probably get it all at once."