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Two Dead, Hundreds of Homes Burned in Texas Wildfires

Jim Forsyth

Sixty separate wildfires, whipped by strong gusts of wind spawned by Tropical Storm Lee as it moved north, burned cross Texas on Monday, destroying hundreds of homes and leaving at least two people dead.

Authorities in Gregg County, in northeast Texas, say a fire there killed a 20 year old woman and her 18 month old daughter, who were trapped in their mobile home by flames.

Officials said the worst of the fires was east of Austin, where the Bastrop County Complex fire stretched for 16 miles. has destroyed 20,000 acres, and was zero percent contained.

"We have about 16 miles long at this time and about six miles wide," said Bastrop County Fire Chief Ronnie McDonald.

Residents said the fire had moved at an amazing speed, driven by the strong, gusty winds.

"It's pretty dire," Justice Jones of the Texas Forest Service said on Monday morning.

The Bastrop Complex fire has forced the evacuation of several subdivisions in the county of 70,000 people.

"This is a shock," said one man as he drove out of the fire zone near Bastrop with his family. "We had some nice plans for Labor Day, and this gives you a sick feeling."

Jones says aircraft, including at least one air tanker, were dropping tons of water on the fast-moving fire on Monday. Fire crews set up a fire line at a county road on the south end of the fire, where they hope to stop its spread.

In the Steiner Ranch area of Austin, a separate fire has forced the evacuation of some 1,000 homes. One woman desperately scanned the wall of thick black smoke and flames looking for her lost dog.

"I was just driving around the neighborhood, I'm five months pregnant, and I was taking in smoke and I was freaking out," she said. "I looked to the right of me and everything over there was full of fire, it was just gone."

"We've had multiple home losses across the state," Jones said. "Some of them on large fires like Bastrop, and some on fairly small fires. It doesn't have to be a large fire to destroy your home."

About 200 homes had to be evacuated due to a brush fire in the Austin suburb of Pflugerville. Another 150 homes were evacuated in Longview, in east Texas. A dozen homes were also under mandatory evacuation on Monday morning near Tyler in east Texas.

The winds sent ash from the fires flying around the state. Residents thirty miles away from Austin woke up on Monday morning to find ashes on their cars parked in their driveways.

The fires are adding to the toll of record-setting fire miseries in parched Texas this year.

More than 3.6 million acres in the state have been scorched since the wildfire season began in November, fed by a continuing drought which has caused more than $5 billion in damage to the state's agricultural industry and shows no sign of easing any time soon.

Jones says the number of fires burning across Texas have stretched the state's firefighting resources to the limit.

"We have so many fires on the books right now, that any new fires are going to tax our firefighting resources."

He urged residents of the state to be especially careful with Labor Day barbecues and other outdoor burning on Monday.

Almost all of the state's 254 counties have already imposed burn bans, severely limiting or outlawing outdoor fires.

"You know you can always accumulate more possessions over time," said one man who watched the Bastrop fire burn on Monday morning. "I'm just glad we all got out of there."

(Reporting by Jim Forsyth. Editing by Peter Bohan)

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