By Karen Brooks
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Some 1,386 homes have been destroyed in a monstrous fire burning southeast of Austin that has destroyed more homes than any other blaze in Texas history, county officials said on Thursday.
The devastating new number -- nearly triple what officials had said earlier in the week -- is the county's "best estimate" of the 35,000-acre fire that's been ripping through this rural, historic community since Sunday, said Bastrop County Emergency Coordinator Mike Fisher.
"This is based on everything we had in (the count) before, plus a house by house and driveway by driveway count we did last night," Fisher said.
Officials said that number is likely to increase as the count continues.
The blaze has killed two people, forced the evacuation of 5,000 and was about 30 percent contained Thursday, officials said.
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.
Bastrop County, with a population around 75,000 and an average income of $27,499 a year per resident, has been particularly hard hit. The region has been declared a federal disaster area and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been on the ground since Tuesday doing damage assessments.
County Judge Ronnie McDonald warned residents not to return to their neighborhoods until they were given the all-clear.
"Respect the firefighters," he said. "Let them go in and do their jobs."
On Thursday afternoon, some evacuated residents were allowed to move back in to homes that were in areas the fire didn't reach. Officials said they should be ready to evacuate again if the fire flares back up in their areas.
"There may be some homes that can be reoccupied that don't have electricity," Fisher said. "There are many homes that you will go back to that don't have running water. But for many of you, it will be better than what you have now."
The footprint of the fire, according to the Texas Forest Service, is a massive 20 miles by 24 miles, and the flames have turned entire neighborhoods into blackened moonscapes of burned out vehicles and crusts that used to be homes.
"We had a lovely home, and we had a nice neighborhood, and it's gone. We just have to accept that," said Betty Porterfield, who was anxiously scouring lists of destroyed homes posted at a Bastrop area shelter.
Like many others, Cindy Murdoch does not know if she will see her home again.
"There is so much loss around me," she said. "It's not just me."
The Bastrop County fire is the biggest, but it is far from the only wildfire burning in Texas right now. Forest service officials say more than three dozen fires are burning across the state, consuming 120,000 acres and driving thousands of people from their homes.
A fast moving fire which started Wednesday night on Camp Stanley, a military training ground northwest of San Antonio, quickly jumped the fence and forced evacuations in the upscale suburb of Fair Oaks Ranch.
"I just got my two dogs and got out," said Roy Gombert, who, like most wildfire evacuees, had to leave with little but the clothes on his back.
Gombert and others were allowed to return to their homes when helicopters dumped fire retardant on the fires, containing them. But Bexar County Fire Marshal Ross Coleman says one of the things stretching fire departments thin is the need to keep crews on the scene of extinguished fires, to make sure they do not flare up again.
"I think we're going to look at a four day event, when it comes to mopping and cleaning up and making sure it doesn't flare up," Coleman said, adding that the fire Wednesday night was a rekindle of a previous fire which had been extinguished the night before.
An impressive array of aircraft has been called in to fight the fires, including six heavy air tankers, three 1500 gallon scoopers, 15 single engine air tankers, 12 helicopters, and 12 aerial supervision aircraft.
Eight Blackhawk and three Chinook helicopters from the Texas National Guard have been providing aerial support. Ten Tanker, a retrofitted DC-10 aircraft which can dump 12,000 gallons of flame retardant or water at a pass will be activated for use in Texas blazes on Friday.
The last several weeks have been extremely destructive for fires, which have burned or threatened nearly every county in Texas, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told reporters in a news conference Wednesday afternoon. Drought, low humidity, high winds and no rain have created tinderbox conditions.
So far, four people have died in fires the broke out across the state over the Labor Day weekend , including a mother and infant daughter who died in northeast Texas on Sunday.
(Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth; Editing by Greg McCune)