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Wildfire destroys nearly 500 homes in Texas

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    A roaring wildfire raced unchecked Monday through rain-starved farm and ranchland in Texas.

BASTROP, Texas » Calmer winds Tuesday should help firefighters battling a wildfire that has destroyed nearly 500 homes in Central Texas and forced thousands of residents to evacuate to shelters to avoid the blaze, officials said.

Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Victoria Koenig said it is too early to say how much progress was made fighting the wildfire in Bastrop County overnight, but that there were no winds early Tuesday. The fire enveloped at least 25,000 acres Monday.

"It’s encouraging we don’t have winds right now, not like yesterday," Koenig said early Tuesday morning.

Even with the encouraging conditions, Koenig said it was a "tough, tough fire" that was raging through rugged terrain, including a ridge of hills.

"You can still see the hills glowing quite a bit," she said.

At least 5,000 people were forced from their homes in Bastrop County about 25 miles east of Austin, and about 400 were in emergency shelters, officials said Monday. School and school-related activities were canceled Tuesday.

Gov. Rick Perry told NBC’s "Today" show that more than 50 fires were burning across the state.

"We’re a long way from having these under control," Perry said.

Perry urged residents to follow evacuation orders and not put their lives in danger for the sake of their possessions. He returned to Texas, cutting short a visit to South Carolina where he was campaigning for the Republican nomination for president.

Fanned in part by howling winds from the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee, the blaze rapidly grew Monday, racing through rain-starved farm and ranchland.

Winds in the area gusted up to 30 mph on Monday, but dropped overnight to around 5 mph and were only expected to get up to 10 mph by afternoon, said National Weather Service forecaster Orlando Bermudez.

In Bastrop, a town of about 6,000 people along the Colorado River, huge clouds of smoke soared into the sky and hung over downtown Monday. When winds picked up, flames flared over the tops of trees. Helicopters and planes loaded with water flew overhead, and firefighters along a state highway outside the city converged around homes catching fire.

"Waiting is the most frustrating thing," said Gina Thurman, 47, choking back tears as she sat by herself in the shade on a curb outside Ascension Catholic Church, one of several shelters in the area. "You’re sitting there and you don’t know anything but your house is probably burning."

Rick Blakely was among about 30 people sleeping on cots at the church. The 54-year-old said he was in a state of shock and "not expecting anything to be standing" when he returned to his home.

"I just don’t know what I’m going to do," he said.

Strong winds coupled with drought conditions allowed the fire to travel quickly over somewhat hilly terrain, burning through pine and cedar trees and wiping out subdivisions as well as ranchland. Dry conditions were expected to persist at least through the week, according to the National Weather Service.

The fire was far enough away from Austin that the city was not threatened, but it consumed land along a line that stretched for about 16 miles, Texas Forest Service officials said.

The wildfire destroyed at least 476 homes, and about 250 firefighters were working around the clock using bulldozers and water trucks against the fire, Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald said.

There were no immediate reports of injuries, and officials said they knew of no residents trapped in their homes.

But the blaze was "nowhere near controlled" on Monday and a separate, smaller blaze south of the city was growing larger, said Mike Fischer, the county’s emergency management director. It’s unclear how the fire began.

Crews have responded to nearly 21,000 wildfires in Texas since the traditional fire season began early in the year. Outdoor burning, including campfires, is prohibited in all but three of the state’s 254 counties.

The governor’s office said at least 40 Texas Forest Service aircraft were involved in the firefighting Monday along with a half-dozen Texas military aircraft.

Since December, wildfires in Texas have claimed 3.5 million acres — an area the size of Connecticut — and destroyed more than 1,000 homes, Perry said. The governor said it was too early to say whether he would attend Wednesday’s GOP debate in California.

"I’m not paying attention to politics right now," he said. "There will be plenty of time for that. People’s lives and their possessions are at stake, and that’s substantially more important."

Authorities mobilized ground and air forces to fight the largest of at least 63 fires that broke out in Texas since Sunday as strong winds from what was then Tropical Storm Lee swept into Texas, which has endured its worst drought since the 1950s.

On Sunday, about 200 miles to the northeast in Gladewater, a 20-year-old woman and her 18-month-old daughter died when a fast-moving wildfire gutted their mobile home. That fire was out Monday, although several other major blazes continued to burn in at least four other counties in central and northern Texas.

To the west of Austin in Travis County, at least 20 homes were lost and 30 others were damaged in another fire. More than 1,000 homes were under mandatory evacuation and 25 lost in a third fire also in the Austin area.

Firefighters were also battling wildfires across parched California, including a brush fire sparked by a small plane crash south of Bakersfield. Wildfires have burned at least 500 acres and three homes in northwestern Louisiana.

In Texas, at least two-thirds of the 6,000-acre Bastrop State Park have burned. The park is home to endangered Houston toads and several historic rock and stone buildings built in the 1930s and 1940s that officials are trying to protect, said Mike Cox of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

From the park’s front gate, Cox said: "All I see is a wall of smoke."

Graczyk reported from Houston. Associated Press writer Danny Robbins and Jamie Stengle in Dallas, and freelance photographer Erich Chlegel contributed to this report.

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