BASTROP, Texas - Wildfires have destroyed nearly 1,400 homes in Central Texas where firefighters have been battling to get the blazes under control for days.
Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Robbie Barrera says 1,386 residential structures have been destroyed as of Thursday. Barrera says the fires are about 30 percent contained.
The Texas Forest Service reported Wednesday that nearly 800 homes were burned in the Bastrop area.
Roadblocks preventing worried residents from seeing whether their houses were among the destroyed have lately become sites of confrontation with people being told they can be arrested, CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds reports.
Fed by stiff winds and extreme drought, the more than 33,000-acre blaze had blackened about 45 square miles in and around Bastrop, about 25 miles east of Austin, leaving two people dead and consuming nearly 1,400 homes by early Thursday, according to the Department of Public Safety. The White House said President Obama telephoned Gov. Rick Perry to say the federal government would continue providing firefighting assistance and quickly assess requests for more aid.
Many Bastrop residents said they had received cell phone photos or videos from those who sneaked back into the fire zone or from volunteer firefighters and police who checked on friends' homes. Others were left to crowd around lists of the lost street addresses posted at the county convention center.
Firefighters hoped to take advantage of low winds to make more progress. The destruction has made the blaze the most catastrophic of more than 170 fires that have erupted in the past week one of the most devastating wildfire outbreaks in state history, which has been blamed for a total of four deaths.
The outbreak has made this the state's costliest wildfire season on record, with $216 million in firefighting expenses since late 2010. The crisis is unfolding months after Perry signed a budget that cut funding to the Texas Forest Service by one-third. Yet the agency insisted that being $35 million lighter hasn't left Texas less equipped to fight the latest fires.
Under the new budget, which went into effect last week, no firefighters in the Forest Service were laid off, said Robbie Dewitt, the agency's finance officer. Moreover, the forest service said it will spend whatever is necessary from state coffers to deal with the disaster and have the expenses accounted for later by state leaders.
Texas Task Force 1, an elite search team, mobilized Wednesday in Bastrop to search the smoldering ruins for more victims. But several thousand people successfully evacuated ahead of the fire, and Bastrop County Emergency Management Coordinator Mike Fisher said about 2,500 people had stopped by one of the county's shelters. Many more people likely stayed with family or friends.
Some residents needed no urging to leave because they saw the flames lapping at the trees. Others heard from friends and neighbors, while still others found a sheriff's deputy at their door or heard firemen rolling down the street with bullhorns. In most cases no one had to be told twice. A wildfire here two years ago drove people from their homes and everyone knew about the severity of the drought.
That was the case for Jose "Pepe" Gomez, 57, who had just returned from church to his girlfriend's house Sunday afternoon.
"We were going to celebrate my girlfriend's grandson's birthday, who is only two ...We were going to have a pool party at her swimming pool, have cake for the kids, then they said `get out,"' Gomez said. "We got evacuated from three locations on that same day. In less than 12 hours we were evacuated three times."
"When you looked up you could see this huge cloud ... we knew it was serious," he said.
Gomez said his girlfriend lost everything after having only enough time to grab a little clothing for her kids and a Bible.
"She was in hysteria when she was told her house was leveled," Gomez said. It was the second home she lost to fire.
Brenda Sanders, a 63-year-old hospice nurse whose home had so far survived the blaze, said she had been oblivious to the fire until a sheriff's deputy came to her door. She and her husband had about 20 minutes to gather items. They grabbed the flags that were on their fathers' caskets, some important insurance documents, mementos from her husband's high school and college football career and their cats.
"It's just been a nightmare," she said. "It's been surreal, the whole experience."
Her friend Denise Rodgers, 56, a hospice chaplain, was not so fortunate. Her house in Tahitian Village burned. First, a friend sent her a photo showing her house untouched. "I was thinking I was in the clear." But later she received a shaky video of the flames circling her home and climbing up one side.
"I could see it coming, you know, over the trees," Rodgers said of her last minutes in the house. "I could see the pink glow so I knew it was close."