"No containment" of Texas wildfire

Last Updated 9:52 a.m. ET

BASTROP, Texas - Firefighters trying to control a wind-fueled wildfire that has destroyed nearly 600 homes in Central Texas were looking for a few overnight hours of diminished winds as thousands of evacuees spent the night away from their threatened homes.

There's been no significant rainfall over central Texas for a year, said CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds, and today the consequences of that are being seen in Bastrop and other areas.

Since December, wildfires have consumed 3.6 million acres of Texas - an area the size of the state of Connecticut.

Unfortunately, there is no rainfall in the forecast for the foreseeable future.

The Texas Forest Service put out statement saying, "This is unprecedented fire behavior. No one on the face of this Earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions."

Tom Boggus, director of the Texas Forest Service, told CBS' "The Early Show" that as of this morning "There's no containment right now."

"We've been in a defensive mode for a couple of days now, and really all you can do is get people out of the way, protect homes where you can, and make sure our firefighters are safe," Boggus told anchor Erica Hill. "But today, the winds have died down so we can probably be much more aggressive, and we hopefully can get some containment on all these fires in the Austin area."

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry left the campaign trail Monday and returned to Texas for the latest outbreak of blazes. He told "The Early Show" Tuesday that he doesn't know whether he will participate in the first Republican debate since he entered the raced for president while his state continues to battle persistent wildfires.

Perry mum on GOP debate as Texas wildfires rage

Boggus said 90 percent of wildfires are caused by people - directly, or through the electricity used by us. Texans are aware of the fire dangers. "People get it, they understand it," he said. "Especially now it's heightened with the news media ... people understand to be very, very careful. And with the high winds people understood how dangerous and how volatile this state is.

"It's historic. We've never seen fire seasons like this. We've never seen drought like this. This is an historic time that we're living in, and so people know and understand they've got to be extremely careful," Boggus said. (To watch the interview click on the video player below.)

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For Bastrop hotel owner Mona Patel, the wildfire left her no room to maneuver: "They just gave us the final warning to leave right now," she said. "It's scary. My mind's lost. I don't know what to do."

It was a sentiment shared by some 5,000 people who've been forced from their homes, or what's left of them, and a wall of smoke and fire 16 miles long blackened the croplands of central Texas dotted with parched and highly combustible pine and cedar trees.

"Didn't look like it was going to get to our house," said resident Steve Conti. "But then the wind changed direction and came through."

"Five minutes is all we had, five minutes," said Josephina Morales, one of the 400 people in emergency shelters right now. "I left with my clothes on my back and that was it.

"It was scary, when you go back to the driveway, it was just like two blocks, three blocks down the road," Morales said.

Scary is how many Texans are describing the scene: "We were just all scared, hoping that we have some kind of mercy if God sees us," said Mona Patel.

The wind came from Tropical Storm Lee, but not the rains - no moisture at all to stem the wildfire's rapid advance.

Boggus of the Texas Forest Service said he will continue to request resources from out-of state to supplement the firefighters on the ground, many of whom are volunteers.

"In Texas the number one line of defense are volunteer firemen," he said. "So we're there to support them. But all the firefighters are fatigued. And that's really our concern right now is getting replacements in here, making sure our firefighters are safe and get rested, so we can attack this fire head-on."

Boggus said 12,000 individuals have come from across the United States to help battle wildfires. But, he added, "We're not the only crisis going on. The tropical storm still causes issues. Irene causes issues in the northeast, and California and Arizona are having fires. So we know we're not the only game in town, but we're going to continue to request resources and we're going to use what we have wisely."

Slack winds were expected after midnight Tuesday, enabling firefighters to make progress on the massive blaze racing through rain-starved farm and ranchland.

"You have to be optimistic and at the same time prepared for the worst," Texas Forest Service spokesman John Nichols said Monday night, acknowledging the weather's unpredictability.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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."

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