BASTROP, Texas – One of the most devastating wildfire outbreaks in Texas history left more than 1,000 homes in ruins Tuesday and stretched the state’s firefighting ranks to the limit, confronting Gov. Rick Perry with a major disaster at home just as the GOP presidential contest heats up.
More than 180 fires have erupted in the past week across the rain-starved Lone Star State, and nearly 600 of the homes destroyed since then were lost in one catastrophic blaze in and around Bastrop, near Austin, that raged out of control Tuesday for a third day.
Whipped into an inferno by Tropical Storm Lee’s winds over the weekend, the blaze burned more than 45 square miles, forced the evacuation of thousands and killed at least two people, bringing the overall death toll from the outbreak to at least four.
“We lost everything,” said Willie Clements, whose two-story colonial home in a housing development near Bastrop was reduced to a heap of metal roofing and ash. A picket fence was melted. Some goats and turkeys survived, but about 20 chickens and ducks were burned to death in a coop that went up in flames.
On Tuesday, Clements and his family took a picture of themselves in front of a windmill adorned with a charred red, white and blue sign that proclaimed, “United We Stand.”
“This is the beginning of our new family album,” the 51-year-old Clements said.
Perry cut short a presidential campaign trip to South Carolina to deal with the crisis. On Tuesday, he toured a blackened area near Bastrop, which is about 25 miles from Austin.
“Pretty powerful visuals of individuals who lost everything,” he said. “The magnitude of these losses are pretty stunning.”
The governor would not say whether he would take part in Wednesday evening’s Republican presidential debate in California, explaining that he was “substantially more concerned about making sure Texans are being taken care of.” But campaign spokesman Mark Miner said in an email later in the day that Perry planned to be there.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration has approved seven federal grants to Texas to help with the latest outbreak, and “we will continue to work closely with the state and local emergency management officials as their efforts to contain these fires.”
The disaster is blamed largely on Texas’ yearlong drought, one of the most severe dry spells the state has ever seen.