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.
"We lost everything," said Willie Clements, whose two-story colonial home in a housing development near Bastrop was reduced to a heap of metal roofing and ash. A picket fence was melted. Some goats and turkeys survived, but about 20 chickens and ducks were burned to death in a coop that went up in flames.
On Tuesday, Clements and his family took a picture of themselves in front of a windmill adorned with a charred red, white and blue sign that proclaimed, "United We Stand."
"This is the beginning of our new family album," the 51-year-old Clements said.
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 Wednesday evening'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. "When you've got people hurting, when you've got lives that are in danger in particular, I really don't care who the asset belongs to. If it's sitting in some yard somewhere and not helping be part of the solution, that's a problem."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration has approved seven federal grants to Texas to help with the latest outbreak, and "we will continue to work closely with the state and local emergency management officials as their efforts to contain these fires."
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. More firefighters will join the battle once they have been registered and sent where they are needed.
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.
The fire in Bastrop County is easily the single most devastating wildfire in Texas in more than a decade, eclipsing a blaze that destroyed 168 homes in North Texas in April. Texas Forest Service spokeswoman April Saginor said state wildfire records go back only to the late 1990s.
At least 11 other fires exceeded 1,000 acres Tuesday, including an 8,000-acre blaze in Caldwell County, next to Bastrop County. At least six homes were lost in a fire 40 percent contained. In far Northeast Texas' Cass County, a 7,000-acre fire burned in heavy timberland. And in Grimes County, about 40 miles northwest of Houston, a 3,000-acre fire destroyed nearly two dozen homes and threatened hundreds more.
Many of the buildings destroyed in the Bastrop fire were modest, single-story homes in housing developments. Others were expensive ranch homes, set off by themselves.
In at least one neighborhood in Bastrop, flames hop-scotched a street where houses were tucked among oaks, pines and cedar trees. Some homes survived; others were gone.
The Postal Service delivered mail to homes that had burned to the ground; only the mailboxes were left stand.
Residents were surprised by how quickly the blaze engulfed their neighborhoods.
"We were watching TV and my brother-in-law said to come and see this," said Dave Wilhelm, who lives just east of Bastrop. "All I saw was a fireball and some smoke. All of a sudden: Boom! We looked up and left."
Wilhelm returned on Tuesday to find his neighbor's house and three vehicles gone. Some of his children's backyard toys were destroyed, but the Wilhelm house was spared.
"Some stuff is smoldering on the lot behind us," he said. "Inside of the house, we smell like a campfire. We're definitely very lucky."
John Chapman's home on about 20 acres was only singed and had some smoke damage, but the vintage-car collector lost about 175 vehicles he kept in a garage or under pole barns. His losses included about a dozen Corvettes and a Shelby Cobra.
As ashes swirled and tree stumps still spit flames, the 70-year-old Chapman pointed out the melted remains of a 1966 Pontiac GTO, a '57 Chevrolet pickup and a 1947 Studebaker pickup, and said: "You can either laugh or you can cry. You might as well laugh."
"The house is safe, my wife and I are alive and good, and I'm not going to worry about it," he said.
For Perry, the crisis carries both opportunity and risk, said Todd Harris, a Republican consultant who has worked on a number of presidential campaigns.
"It gives Perry an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, to demonstrate decisiveness and at the same time empathy and caring, which are four qualities that most voters look for in a president," Harris said.
But he added: "You can't do anything that looks sounds, or smells even remotely political. If it looks like you are taking advantage of a disaster and trying to use it for political purposes, it will backfire and you'll be worse off than if you hadn't done anything."
About 40 people who fled their homes were staying at a community center in the town of Paige. A volunteer, Debbie Barrington, said some people have been sleeping outside on picnic tables under a pavilion, eating food and using toiletries donated by folks not hurt by the fires.
"The first night, we had a child 17 months old," she said. "We didn't have milk. The next morning, I think we had eight gallons. People heard what we needed and brought it in. The response has been unreal."
Also contributing to this story were AP reporters Jamie Stengle, Danny Robbins and Schuyler Dixon in Dallas, Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Will Weissert in Austin and AP Photographer Eric Gay in Bastrop. Michael Graczyk reported from Houston.