Texas fire destroys 1,554 homes, 17 people missing

Associated Press
A fire fighting crew from the Lassen National Forest in Calif., clean up hot spots after the destructive wildfire in Bastrop, Texas, Sept. 10, 2011.  Officials in Texas say fire crews are making progress fighting a massive Texas wildfire but concerns about hotspots are keeping thousands of residents in the Bastrop area from returning home.  (AP Photo/Eric Schlegel - POOL)
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BASTROP, Texas (AP) — Drawn to the quaint Central Texas town of Bastrop by the promise of life in a quiet, wooded area, Frank Davis moved into his new home two Saturdays ago. The next day, he and his wife evacuated when a monster wildfire moved in.

Now, there's nothing left.

"The fire was so hot, there are even panes of glass that melted," said Davis, a 47-year-old home remodeler who came to Bastrop from Austin, about 30 miles away. "It's all gone."

The number of homes destroyed by a still-raging wildfire here rose 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.

For Davis, a first-time homebuyer who paid cash and moved in without insurance, that means living in a mobile home on his charred property while he rebuilds. In the meantime, he and his wife are staying with relatives.

"I do intend to stay," he said.

Davis saw his property when a sympathetic police officer let him slip into an otherwise inaccessible area so he could catch a glimpse of his land.

Others who were forced to evacuate have not yet had that opportunity. Many 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.

George Helmke, 77, a retired Delta airlines gate agent, is scheduled to return home Thursday. Until then, a police roadblock some 150 yards from his property is preventing access — even though there is no fire damage.

"It's almost inhumane and I'm very frustrated," said Helmke, who said he has been unable to get heart and other medications from home. "These are expensive medications. I tell these folks that, but they just sort of brush you off," he said.

Others are even more desperate.

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.

One evacuee hunted for a hairdryer. When she failed to find one in the items on the lawn, Roberts went to her own bathroom.

"I said 'give her ours, we don't use it,'" said the 40-year-old.

Single-mother Latasha Payne and her five sons, ages 4 to 11, rummaged through the items looking for toys. The family hasn't been back home and doesn't know what's left — but the 31-year-old said two of her kids have severe asthma, so they will have to move anyway.

A state voucher is allowing the family to stay in a hotel for free for a week. After that, Payne, a full-time college student, doesn't know what she will do.

"I really don't have a plan," she said, her voice cracking. "It's definitely going to be a fight tooth and nail for rental property."

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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Weissert reported from Bastrop, Texas. Plushnick-Masti reported from Houston and can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP

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