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.
Perry cut short a presidential campaign trip to South Carolina to deal with the crisis. On Tuesday, he toured a blackened area near Bastrop, about 25 miles from Austin, and later deployed the state’s elite search team to the area to look for more possible victims. Texas Task Force 1 is the same outfit sent to New York following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“Pretty powerful visuals of individuals who lost everything,” Perry said after the tour. “The magnitude of these losses are pretty stunning.”
The governor would not say whether he would take part in tonight’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.
Perry, a tea-party favorite who has made a career out of railing against government spending, said he expects federal assistance with the wildfires, and he complained that red tape was keeping bulldozers and other heavy equipment at the Army’s Fort Hood, 75 miles from Bastrop, from being putting to use. Fort Hood was battling its own fire, a 3,700-acre blaze.
“It’s more difficult than it should be to get those types of assets freed up by the federal government,” Perry said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration has approved seven federal grants to Texas to help with the latest outbreak.
About 1,200 firefighters battled the blazes, including members of local departments from around the state and crews from such places as Utah, California, Arizona and Oregon, many of them arriving after Texas put out a call for help.
Five heavy tanker planes, some from the federal government, and three aircraft capable of scooping 1,500 gallons of water at a time from lakes also took part in the fight.
“We’re getting incredible support from all over the country, federal and state agencies,” said Mark Stanford, operations director for the Texas Forest Service.
The disaster is blamed largely on Texas’ yearlong drought, one of the most severe dry spells the state has ever seen.