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 Republican 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 (116 sq. kilometers), forced the evacuation of thousands and killed at least two people, bringing the overall death toll from the outbreak to at least four.
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 (40 kilometers) 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," he 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 favorite of the conservative tea-party movement 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 (120 kilometers) from Bastrop, from being putting to use. Fort Hood was battling its own fire, a 3,700-acre (1,500-hectare) blaze.
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 out of state, 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.