Texas fire destroys 1,554 homes, 17 people missing
BASTROP, Texas (AP) - September 11, 2011 --The number of homes destroyed by a Texas wildfire has risen to 1,554 and is expected to further increase as firefighters enter more areas where the blaze has been extinguished, officials said Sunday. Seventeen people remain unaccounted for. Bastrop County officials joined by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett sought to provide new information to hundreds of residents evacuated from their homes a week ago when blustering wind whipped up by Tropical Storm Lee swept across parched, drought-stricken Texas, helping to spark more than 190 wildfires statewide. The worst of the fires has consumed more than 34,000 acres in this area 30 miles southeast of Austin. While sharing the bad news that the tally of destroyed homes will increase, officials also told some 100 residents who gathered at a news conference on Sunday that people would begin going back into the scorched areas on Monday. A detailed plan will allow residents to slowly enter the evacuated areas over the coming week as firefighters and emergency responders ensure the land has properly cooled, hotspots are extinguished and the blaze is contained. Tensions and frustrations boiled over at a similar gathering on Saturday when residents demanded to be allowed to return to their neighborhoods to see what remains of their homes and attempt to salvage a few belongings. Many people were given only minutes to evacuate as the raging blaze surrounded homes and neighborhoods. Some had time to only gather a few important belongings. Others left with only the clothes on their back. Still, Bastrop County Sheriff Terry Pickering said there was no immediate concern for the lives of the 17 people who remain unaccounted for. "They could have been on vacation," he said. George Helmke, 77, a retired Delta airlines gate agent, is scheduled to return to his home on Thursday. A police roadblock some 150 yards from his home is preventing him from accessing his property even though there is no fire damage. "It's almost inhumane and I'm very frustrated," Helmke said. "They've had us out eight days already." The fire has prevented him from taking heart and esophagus medication he has in his house. "These are expensive medication. I tell these folks that, but they just sort of brush you off," Helmke said. The federal government on Friday declared Texas a disaster area, paving the way for individuals to get financial aid. Doggett said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will incur 75 percent of the costs of fighting the fires, and families will be eligible for up to $30,000 to pay for expenses not covered by insurance policies, such as hotel bills, temporary housing and even construction costs. "The $30,000 can only go so far toward the expenses that some of you have," Doggett said. "But I think it can be a lot of assistance." On Monday, schools will open for the first time since the Bastrop blaze erupted. So many people are living in the town's Super 8, Best Western and Holiday Inn that school buses will stop at all three. County emergency management director Mike Fisher said the Bastrop blaze is now 50 percent contained. "We're gaining every hour every shift," Fisher said. The monster blaze that has done the most damage to Bastrop resulted when two fires joined a week ago. Investigators have been focused on containing the blaze and won't know for several weeks what caused it, Pickering said. Officials are investigating reports of arson in smaller fires, he said. "We had reports from around the community of vehicles driving around that we suspect are starting fires," Pickering said. "I have no confirmation of that." North of Houston, meanwhile, firefighters say a tri-county blaze that has consumed more than 20,000 acres and destroyed nearly 60 homes is also half contained.