Two people have died in a monstrous wildfire that raged out of control near Austin on Tuesday and had destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands of people to be evacuated, officials said.
The two deaths in the 33,000-acre Bastrop County Complex fire brought the death toll from Labor Day weekend fires across the state to four, including a mother and infant daughter who died in northeast Texas on Monday.
Officials declined to provide details on the new deaths, other than to say they were not public safety responders.
Wildfires sweeping across drought-stricken Texas have destroyed more than 1,000 homes and forced thousands of evacuations in the last several days.
The worst of the fires, the Bastrop County Complex fire, located about 30 miles southeast of Austin, has destroyed some 550 homes, the most of any single fire in Texas history. About 5,000 people have been evacuated in Bastrop County alone.
On Tuesday evening, Governor Rick Perry announced the deployment of Texas Task Force 1, a wide-area search team that responded to the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York City and was sent to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived in Bastrop on Tuesday afternoon to start assessing damages and needs of victims. The fire was still out of control late on Tuesday.
"It is certainly a remarkable fire in terms of evacuations and the number of homes that have burned," said Ken Frederick, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
More than 3.6 million acres in Texas have been scorched by wildfires since November, fed by a continuing drought that has caused more than $5 billion in damage to the state's agricultural industry and that shows no sign of easing.
The Bastrop County fire stretches 24 miles long and 20 miles wide at its widest point. Evacuations were still underway on Tuesday afternoon.
Perry, the front-runner among Republican presidential contenders, canceled his appearance at a candidate round-table
in South Carolina on Monday to return to Austin.
He told reporters there on Tuesday that he was focused on the firefighting effort and didn't know whether he would attend a Republican candidates' debate in California on Wednesday.
RAIN OF FIRE
Dawn Camp, 33, a fire evacuee from Leander near the Austin city limits, hadn't heard the phone ring and didn't know it was time to flee her home until she smelled smoke and walked out the front door to see her neighbor's home burning.
"Fire was raining down on my yard," she said.
She grabbed her children, put them in the car, and started down the road. A block later, she jumped out and gave the keys to her 18-year-old daughter, who spirited her younger siblings, ages 8 and 10, to their great-grandmother's house.
Camp then walked home to coax her cats, Bugbite and Moonshine, out of the house. But police were in her yard.
"They wouldn't let me back in," she said, standing outside a shelter at Rouse High School in Leander. Walking along a main street through the quiet subdivision, Camp said the smoke was so thick she couldn't see or breathe.
A passerby picked her up, and she rejoined her family. Later, a relieved Camp reported that she was able to see her house -- and both the home and the cats were fine.
"I saw some houses that were burned, but our little half of the street was fine," Camp said. The cats "were thirsty, but they were wonderful."
The wildfire in Leander had been extinguished by Tuesday afternoon and had destroyed at least a dozen homes and threatened 150 more.
Police there were investigating as arson a wildfire that destroyed nearly a dozen Leander homes and caused the evacuations of 500, residents and media reports said. Investigators were searching for three teens in connection to that fire, which officials said caused $1.4 million in damage.
This week's explosive growth in the Texas fires was driven by high winds, spawned by Tropical Storm Lee, with flames leaping from tree to tree at speeds up to 60 miles per hour, the Texas Department of Public Safety said.