Texas wildfire chars more than 1,500 homes

Hillary Polly looks through the family belongings as Thomas Polly tries to pry open a fireproof gun safe with his father Louie Polly in the background amongst the rubble of their burned house in a subdivision, Sept. 7, 2011, near Bastrop, Texas. Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

BASTROP, Texas - The number of homes destroyed by a still-raging wildfire here increased on Sunday to 1,554 and will increase further as emergency crews enter areas where the blaze has been extinguished. Seventeen people remain unaccounted for, but officials believe they could simply be out of town.

Bastrop County officials joined by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett sought to provide new information to hundreds of residents evacuated a week ago, when blustering wind whipped up by Tropical Storm Lee swept across parched, drought-stricken Texas — helping to spark more than 190 wildfires statewide that killed four people.

The worst of the fires is the one in Bastrop that has consumed more than 34,000 acres.

Crews have now contained more than 50 percent of the blaze, paving the way for people to begin returning home and trying to rebuild their lives from the remains of the smoldering rubble.

Many who were forced to evacuate still don't know what became of their homes.

Beginning Monday, county officials will begin allowing them to slowly re-enter scorched areas as authorities ensure the land has properly cooled and hotspots are extinguished. Some were given only minutes to evacuate as the raging blaze surrounded homes and neighborhoods. Some had time to gather a few important belongings, others fled with only the clothes on their back.

Tiffany and Bill Roberts started a Facebook page pairing families in need with those who want to help. Since Wednesday, more than 1,000 people have joined, and around 70 families have found sponsors who have helped them with everything from finding donated clothes and legal aid to securing a place to stay.

Donation centers in Bastrop are so overwhelmed that they've stopped accepting clothing and other items. As a result, the Roberts have filled their lawn with donations: folding tables piled with everything from clothes to kitchen utensils to stuffed animals; dressers cluttered with lamps and other electronics standing next to piles of DVDs, VHS tapes and CDs.

The federal government on Friday declared Texas a disaster area, paving the way for individuals to get financial aid. Congressman Doggett said families will be eligible for up to $30,000 to pay for expenses not covered by insurance policies, such as temporary housing and even construction costs.

"The $30,000 can only go so far toward the expenses that some of you have," Doggett said. "But I think it can be a lot of assistance."

On Monday, schools will open for the first time since the Bastrop blaze erupted. So many people are living in the town's Super 8, Best Western and Holiday Inn that school buses will stop at all three.

The monster blaze that has done the most damage to Bastrop resulted when two fires joined a week ago. Investigators won't know for several weeks what caused them, Pickering said. Some smaller fires that flared up since then could have been deliberately set, he said.

"We had reports from around the community of vehicles driving around that we suspect are starting fires," Pickering said. "I have no confirmation of that."

North of Houston, meanwhile, firefighters say a tri-county blaze that has consumed more than 20,000 acres and destroyed nearly 60 homes is also half contained.

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