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Wildfire destroys 300 homes near Austin, Texas

BASTROP, Texas (AP) — A wildfire burning southeast of Austin, Texas, destroyed about 300 homes, forced the evacuation of many others and was advancing unchecked on Monday through parched ranchland along a 16-mile front, authorities said. The fire had blackened more than 17,500 acres since it started on Sunday and was the largest of the dozens burning in the drought-stricken state. It was headed away from the state capital, some 30 miles to the northwest, and consuming the water-starved woods and brush with such ferocity that it was deemed unsafe to fight from the ground, Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Jan Amen said. "It's a monster and it's zero percent contained," Amen said. Instead, the state deployed its firefighting air fleet, including National Guard helicopters and four heavy tanker planes. It also summoned a tanker from South Dakota. Emergency shelters were set up for those forced to evacuate their homes. About 30 people spent the night at a Bastrop church, waiting to learn if they had lost everything. Rick Blakely, 54, said he expected that his home was among those destroyed, but that he was holding out hope nonetheless. From town, the view in several directions was obscured by thick columns of smoke billowing skyward. Texas is enduring its worst drought since the 1950s, and the wildfire threat has been exacerbated by powerful wind gusts cast off by Tropical Storm Lee, hundreds of miles to the east. The blaze near Bastrop among at least 63 that had started Sunday or Monday. Gov. Rick Perry cut short a visit to South Carolina on Monday and cancelled a planned trip to California in order to return to Texas to oversee the firefighting efforts, Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for the Republican's presidential campaign, said in a statement. There had been no reported injuries linked to the Bastrop County fire. But a fast-moving blaze in the East Texas town of Gladewater on Sunday killed a 20-year-old woman and her 18-month-old daughter, trapping them in their burning home. That fire was eventually extinguished. "Today is just as bad," Amen said Monday. Nearly half of Bastrop State Park, a 6,000-acre preserve east of Bastrop, was gone, KVUE-TV in Austin reported. "It's huge," a woman at the park office who declined to identify herself said Monday from the park office. "It's all over." The park and several major highways in the area were closed but a handful of people whose RV's were left overnight in the popular park were being allowed in to retrieve them, she said. Texas has experienced more than its share of destructive storms, including Hurricane Ike three years ago. But the state's anxious farmers and ranchers would have welcomed the rain that Tropical Storm Lee dumped instead on Gulf Coast states further east. Instead of water, Texas got winds, which combined with an advancing cold front to heighten the wildfire threat. All but three of the 254 counties in Texas were under outdoor burn bans. A wildfire in the Austin suburb of Cedar Park destroyed two homes and damaged two others Sunday. Wildfires also prompted evacuations of other neighborhoods in Cedar Park and some in some suburbs. In Corsicana, about 50 miles south of Dallas, a wildfire destroyed eight metal industrial shop buildings. Mayor Chuck McClanahan said fire crews were fighting to keep the flames from reaching wooden structures. Eight miles south of Corsicana, the roughly 200 residents of Navarro and those living in a rural area outside of town fled for safety because of three separate blazes that had burned some 2,000 acres, Navarro County Judge H.M. Davenport said. Ronnie Willis, who owns a pasture just east of the Corsicana fire, said embers from the industrial park blaze burned his field and he could only watch as the flames advanced toward two massive indoor arenas he owns. "My prayer is it doesn't burn up the buildings," he told the Corsicana Daily Sun. "The grass will grow back. If it doesn't hurt an animal or burn up the buildings, we can live through it. I just feel sorry for the people whose businesses are being destroyed." Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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