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Texas Wildfire Burns Nearly 1,400 Homes

CNN/KTLA News

1:42 PM EDT, September 8, 2011

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Bastrop, Texas -- A huge wildfire raging near Austin has destroyed nearly 1,400 homes and is still spreading, officials said Thursday.

Victoria Koenig, spokeswoman for the Texas Forest Service, said the Bastrop County fire has destroyed 1,368 homes -- more than double the estimate officials gave Wednesday.

Despite hopes that the fire would be largely contained by Wednesday night, it remained 30% contained Thursday morning, she said. About 34,000 acres have been destroyed.

The fire has killed at least two people. An elite search team is helping local officials scour the area for other potential victims.

At least 5,000 people evacuated the area, officials said.

The Bastrop fire is one of scores that have been burning across the drought-stricken state. Wildfires have been scorching Texas for nearly 300 days.

In just the past week, the Texas Forest Service has responded to 181 fires, Gov. Rick Perry said.

President Barack Obama called Perry to "express his concern for citizens of Texas impacted by the unprecedented fires."

The president assured the governor "that requests for additional assistance, including as recovery begins, would be quickly assessed," according to a White House statement.

Officials are expected to enlist the help of a DC-10 tanker to fight the blaze, but it cannot be used until Friday, CNN affiliate KXAN reported.

The plane, which can hold 12,000 gallons of retardant, has been fighting fires in California and has to take mandatory days off before it can be used, the affiliate reported.

The weather will bring "a sliver of hope in the next five to six days," said HLN meteorologist Bob Van Dillen. "Tropical Storm Nate over the Bay of Campeche may spread some rain to south-central Texas next week, but those chances seem slim at this point."

While the cause of the Bastrop fire remains unknown, officials in Leander, Texas, about 60 miles northwest of Bastrop, believe four teen arsonists were responsible for a smaller fire there this week that destroyed 11 homes and caused $1.4 million in damage.

In Camp Bullis, north of San Antonio, a new wildfire broke out Wednesday afternoon. Bexar County Fire Marshall spokeswoman Laura Jesse said at least 125 acres burned. CNN affiliate KSAT reported that the fire has been contained.

The fires leave heartbreaking scenes of destruction.

Jerry Hooten found little more than ashes when he returned to his home in Bastrop County.

"We ain't happy about it, but we're all alive," said Hooten, who is staying at an RV park outside the danger zone.

"I don't think it's registered in our brains that our house is gone and that, really, half of Bastrop is gone," said evacuee Claire Johnson.