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Texas wildfire consumes hundreds more homes

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

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.

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.

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."

Homes destroyed by wildfire are seen, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, in Bastrop, Texas. The fire has destroyed more than 600 homes and blackened about 45 square miles in and around Bastrop. A search team on Wednesday will begin looking for more possible victims of the fire, which has killed two people and forced thousands to evacuate. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)Eric Gay / AP

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.

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 .

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.