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Texas wildfires destroy 1,000-plus homes

Sept. 7, 2011 at 10:25 PM   |   Comments

BASTROP, Texas, Sept. 7 (UPI) -- Fire officials said the largest fire racing through drought-stricken central Texas was about 30 percent contained Wednesday.

Officials said two people died while two fires still burned on either side of the city of Bastrop in Bastrop County, KXAN-TV, Austin, reported. The overall death toll from the outbreak of fires is four, officials said.

Officials said the biggest fire, just east of Bastrop, had consumed 38,089 acres and destroyed 785 homes, the Los Angeles Times reported.

President Barack Obama talked with Texas Gov. Rick Perry by phone Wednesday to "express his concern for citizens of Texas impacted by the unprecedented fires" and extend "his condolences for the lives that have been lost." Obama affirmed the federal government "will continue to make federal assistance available to state and local officials as they fight the fires," the White House said in a statement.

"The president also assured the governor that requests for additional assistance, including as recovery begins, would be quickly assessed," the statement said. "Over the last several days, at the request of the governor, the administration has granted eight fire management assistance grants, making federal funds available to reimburse eligible costs associated with efforts to combat the fires."

The Times said the Texas forest service is spending about $1.5 million a day to fight the 122 active wildfires in the state.

"We feel like perhaps today, perhaps today that we'll have the perimeter secure where the fire will not get larger," Bastrop County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Fisher told radio station KUT-FM, Austin.

The smaller fire west of Bastrop, about 20 percent contained, burned through about 800 acres and destroyed 28 homes, fire officials said. About 150 homes are threatened, and 200 people have been evacuated.

The Texas Forest Service said on its Web site Wednesday it responded to 19 new fires covering 1,490 acres, including new large fires in Red River and Rusk counties. The service said it had responded to 172 fires affecting 135,051 acres during the past seven days.

About 1,023 homes have been destroyed during the last three days, the Texas Forest Service said.

"I cannot emphasize enough to Texans in the impacted areas the importance of heeding all warnings from local officials, especially evacuation orders, as these fires are mean, swift and highly dangerous," Perry said.

A number of aircraft have been mobilized to assist with the heavy fire activity, the forest service said, including six heavy airtankers, three 1,500-gallon scoopers, 15 single-engine airtankers, 12 helicopters, and 12 aerial supervision aircraft. A 12,000-gallon DC-10 airtanker will be activated Friday.

The crew of the International Space Station captured video of the wildfires burning in Texas, KUT said.

"It is a sad sight with all the fires burning in Texas right now," flight engineer Mike Fossum said. "See one major one, and three smaller ones."

Fire officials said they suspect a fire that destroyed dozens of homes in Leander and forced hundreds of people to evacuate was deliberately set, KXAN-TV, Austin, reported. Officials said they were looking for four teens -- two girls and two boys -- in connection with the fire, which was about 75 percent contained Tuesday afternoon.

Arson is also suspected in a fire that started Tuesday afternoon in North Austin.

Perry -- who stopped campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination Monday to deal with the raging wildfires, returned to the trail Wednesday when Republican hopefuls gathered in California for another nationally televised debate.

Major homeowners insurance companies declared the Texas fires a catastrophe and sent specialized claims workers and equipment to help customers through the process.

© 2011 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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