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Texas: Trees on power lines likely caused huge blaze

Homes destroyed by the fire in Bastrop, Texas, are seen Sept. 7.
Homes destroyed by the fire in Bastrop, Texas, are seen Sept. 7.Eric Gay / AP
/ Source: news services

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."