- Associated Press - Monday, September 5, 2011

BASTROP, Texas (AP) — A wildfire burning southeast of Austin, Texas, destroyed about 300 homes and was advancing unchecked on Monday through parched ranchland along a 16-mile front, authorities said.

The fire, one of dozens that crews were battling throughout the drought-stricken state, has blackened some 17,500 acres but was not threatening the state capital, as it was about 30 miles from the city and headed the opposite way. But the ferocity and speed with which it was moving made it unsafe to fight from the ground, Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Jan Amen said.

“It’s a monster, and it’s zero percent contained,” Ms. Amen said.

Instead, the state was scrambling its firefighting air fleet, including National Guard helicopters and four heavy tanker planes. It also was bringing in a tanker from South Dakota.

The blaze was the largest of dozens of wildfires burning throughout the state, including 63 that have started since Sunday. 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 fires led Gov. Rick Perry to cut short a visit to South Carolina and cancel a planned trip to California, Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for his Republican presidential campaign, said in a statement.

Among Texas‘ many weekend fires was one more than 200 miles to the northeast, in Gladewater, where a 20-year-old woman and her 18-month-old daughter were killed Sunday when they were unable to escape from a fast-moving blaze that consumed their mobile home. That fire was eventually extinguished.

“Today is just as bad,” Ms. Amen said Monday.

No injuries were reported from the Bastrop County fire near Austin, but several subdivisions were ordered evacuated on Sunday after it broke out. Authorities hadn’t determined how it started.

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. “It’s all over.”

The park and several major highways in the area were closed, but a handful of people whose RVs 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, heightened 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 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.”

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