SAN ANTONIO/AUSTIN (Reuters) – Sixty separate wildfires, whipped by winds as Tropical Storm Lee passed, burned across parched Texas on Monday, destroying hundreds of homes and leaving at least two people dead, authorities said.
"I'm still seeing no containment," said April Saginor, public information officer for the Texas Forest Service, who confirmed that the Bastrop County Complex Fire east of the state capital has alone scorched more than 25,000 acres and burned 476 residences so far.
"That's a record in Texas for a single fire," she said of the homes destroyed.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the front-running Republican Party presidential candidate, canceled his appearance at a candidate roundtable in South Carolina on Monday to return to Austin.
"I have seen a lot of mean-looking fires in my time, but this one is the meanest. You realize the devastation when you see it first hand," Perry said at a news briefing on Monday.
"I am not paying any attention to politics right now. There are people's homes and lives in danger, and that is far more important," he said to a smattering of applause.
"I have never seen a fire season like this. We have lost more than 3.5 million acres to brush fires, that is an area larger than the state of Connecticut," he said. "We have a long way to go to get this thing contained."
Officials said the worst of the fires was in Bastrop, a country of about 70,000 people thirty miles east of Austin.
Saginor said more than 250 firefighters were working on the Bastrop fire, which stretches for 16 miles with a breadth of six miles in some spots.
"This fire is nowhere near being under control," Bastrop County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Fisher said.
On Monday a second fire had broken out southwest of the main fire, in southwestern Bastrop County, he said. But crews had been able to contain the main fire north of the Colorado River, and he was confident it is not likely to move into more populated areas west of the main fire zone.
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, said a fire there killed a 20-year-old woman and her 18-month-old daughter, who were trapped in their mobile home by flames.
GUSTS DRIVE SPEED
Residents said the fire had moved at an amazing speed, driven by the strong, gusty winds.
"There was a policeman that started hollering through a big megaphone, telling us to get out of our houses immediately, now!" said a woman who lives in one of the Bastrop County subdivisions.
"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."
"We know that this is tough on people who have been evacuated," Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said. "Especially since there is no set time for people to return."
The Texas Forest Service said 'dozens' of aircraft are responding to fire danger, including four heavy airtankers, 15 single-engine airtankers, and 13 aerial supervision aircraft.
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."
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.
Weather forecasters say the winds now fueling the fires should start dying down after midnight on Monday.
"It's going to be horrible for tonight, but the winds will start diminishing after midnight," said Sally Russell, Meteorologist for the Weather Channel. "Winds that are now 35 to 40 miles per hour will be down to 5 to 10 miles an hour after midnight.
(Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Peter Bohan)