SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Sixty separate wildfires, whipped by strong gusts of wind spawned by Tropical Storm Lee as it moved north, burned across Texas on Monday, destroying homes and leaving at least two people dead, authorities said.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is running as a Republican presidential candidate, is cutting short his campaigning and returning from South Carolina to Texas on Monday.
“I urge Texans to take extreme caution as we continue to see the devastating effects of sweeping wildfires impacting both rural and urban areas of the state,” Perry said in a statement.
Perry had been slated to participate in televised round-table with other Republican candidates on Monday night.
Officials said the worst of the fires was east of Austin, where the Bastrop County Complex fire stretched for 16 miles.
Texas Forest Service officials said the fire has jumped Highway 95, the road that they had hoped to set up as a barrier, and has now spread to 25,000 acres.
The Service responded on Sunday to 63 new fires burning on more than 32,000 acres, including 22 new large fires.
Authorities in Gregg County, in northeast Texas, say a fire there killed a 20-year-old woman and her 18-month-old daughter, who were trapped in their mobile home by flames.
“We have about 16 miles long at this time and about six miles wide,” said Bastrop County Fire Chief Ronnie McDonald.
“The Circle D, K.C. Estates, Pine Forest, Colovista and Tahitian Village subdivision have been evacuated,” the Texas Forest Service said on its web site on Monday.
The service estimates 424 homes may have been destroyed so far from ongoing fires, 300 from the Bastrop fire alone.
Residents said the fire had moved at an amazing speed, driven by the strong, gusty winds.
“It’s pretty dire,” Justice Jones of the Forest Service said on Monday morning.
The Bastrop Complex fire has forced the evacuation of several subdivisions in the county of 70,000 people.
“This is a shock,” said one man as he drove out of the fire zone near Bastrop with his family. “We had some nice plans for Labor Day, and this gives you a sick feeling.”
The Texas Forest Service says ‘dozens’ of aircraft are responding to fire danger, including four heavy airtankers, 15 single-engine airtankers, and 13 aerial supervision aircraft.
An airtanker has been brought in from South Dakota, and the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System has been activated, which will mean firefighters from city and county department around the state will be mobilized to fight the fires.
The Service urged Texans to avoid any activities that might increase the danger including outdoor barbecuing on Labor Day.
Almost all of the state’s 254 counties have already imposed burn bans, severely limiting or outlawing outdoor fires.
In the Steiner Ranch area of Austin, a separate fire has forced the evacuation of some 1,000 homes. One woman desperately scanned the wall of thick black smoke and flames looking for her lost dog.
“I was just driving around the neighborhood, I’m five months pregnant, and I was taking in smoke and I was freaking out,” she said. “I looked to the right of me and everything over there was full of fire, it was just gone.”
“We’ve had multiple home losses across the state,” Jones said. “Some of them on large fires like Bastrop, and some on fairly small fires. It doesn’t have to be a large fire to destroy your home.”
About 200 homes had to be evacuated due to a brush fire in the Austin suburb of Pflugerville. Another 150 homes were evacuated in Longview, in east Texas. A dozen homes were under mandatory evacuation on Monday near Tyler in east Texas.
The winds sent ash from the fires flying around the state. Residents thirty miles away from Austin woke up on Monday morning to find ashes on their cars parked in their driveways.
The fires are adding to the toll of record-setting fire miseries in parched Texas this year.
More than 3.6 million acres in the state have been scorched since the wildfire season began in November, fed by a continuing drought which has caused more than $5 billion in damage to the state’s agricultural industry and shows no sign of easing any time soon.
Reporting by Jim Forsyth. Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Peter Bohan