AUSTIN (Reuters) - Two people have died in a monstrous wildfire raging southeast of Austin, officials said on Tuesday.
The deaths of the two people in the 33,000-acre Bastrop County Complex fire bring the death toll of Labor Day weekend fires across the state to four, including a mother and infant daughter who died in northeast Texas on Monday.
Officials declined to provide details on the deaths, other than to say they were not public safety responders.
Wildfires sweeping across drought-stricken Texas have destroyed more than 1,000 homes and forced thousands of evacuations in the last several days.
The worst of the fires, the Bastrop County Complex fire, located about 30 miles southeast of Austin, has destroyed some 550 homes, the most of any single fire in Texas history. About 5,000 people have been evacuated in Bastrop County alone.
“It is certainly a remarkable fire in terms of evacuations and the number of homes that have burned,” said Ken Frederick, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. “In terms of the lives that have been disrupted, this is a major set of fires.”
In addition to the Bastrop and Leander fires, the Texas Forest Service has responded to at least 85 new blazes in the last 48 hours, burning on more than 32,000 acres. The fires have injured three firefighters, none seriously, according to officials.
The Bastrop County fire stretches for 24 miles long and 20 miles wide at its widest point and is still uncontained. Evacuations were still underway Tuesday afternoon.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, the frontrunner among Republican presidential candidates, canceled his appearance at a candidate roundtable in South Carolina on Monday to return to Austin.
He told reporters there Tuesday that he was focused on the firefighting effort and didn’t know whether he would attend a Republican candidates debate in California on Wednesday.
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.
Dawn Camp, 33, a fire evacuee from Leander, about 10 miles west of the Austin city limits, hadn’t heard the phone ring and didn’t hear the official evacuation message Monday evening, so she didn’t know it was time to flee her home until she smelled smoke and walked out the front door to see her neighbor’s home burning.
“Fire was raining down on my yard,” she said.
She grabbed her children, put them in the car, and started down the road. A block later, she jumped out and gave the keys to her 18-year-old daughter, who spirited away her younger siblings, ages 8 and 10, to their great-grandmother’s house.
Camp then walked home to coax their two cats, Bugbite and Moonshine, out of the house. But police were standing in her front yard.
“They wouldn’t let me back in,” she said, standing outside the shelter at Rouse High School in Leander. Walking along a main street through the quiet subdivision, Camp said the smoke was so thick she couldn’t see or breathe.
A passerby picked her up, and she was able to rejoin her family. On Tuesday afternoon, a relieved Camp reported that she was able to see her house -- and both the home and the cats were “just fine.”
“I saw some houses that were burned, but our little half of the street was fine,” Camp said. The cats “were thirsty, but they were wonderful.”
The wildfire in Leander had been extinguished by Tuesday afternoon and had destroyed at least a dozen homes and threatened 150 more.
Police in Leander were also investigating as arson a wildfire that destroyed nearly a dozen homes in that city and caused the evacuations of 500, according to residents and media reports. Investigators were searching for three teens in connection to that fire, which officials said caused some $1.4 million damage.
This week’s explosive growth in the Texas fires was driven by high winds, spawned by Tropical Storm Lee, with flames leaping from tree to tree at speeds up to 60 miles per hour, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“Due to the prolonged dry weather, any spark whatsoever could cause a fire,” said Travis County Sheriff’s spokesman Roger Wade, speaking of the Steiner Ranch fire, which claimed 35 homes.
Schools were closed and churches were filled with evacuees across Central Texas Tuesday, and blazes were still being fought in North Texas near Fort Worth and east to Houston.
About 30 miles north of Houston, 400 homes have been evacuated in a 150-acre fire.
In the past seven days, the forest service has responded to 181 fires for 118,413 acres -- and those were just the blazes being managed by the state. About 375 firefighters are on the ground fighting fires, and the Texas Forest Service has requested another 300 to 400 from outside the state.
Some 3.4 million acres have burned in Texas since the state’s worst fire season in history began last November.
Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth and Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Jackie Frank and Jerry Norton