Disastrous Texas Wildfire Now Worst in State’s History

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Mike Stone / Reuters

A basketball net can be seen in the foreground as a home burns near Bastrop, Texas September 5, 2011. Sixty separate wildfires, whipped by strong winds, were burning across Texas on Monday, destroying hundreds of homes and killing at least two people, officials said.

It’s razed hundreds of homes, blackened tens of thousands of acres, and forced some 5,000 people to evacuate. And with all that, it’s now officially the worst single wildfire in Texas state history.

Firefighters are battling to contain and subdue a 16-mile-wide, wind-fed wildfire in Bastrop County—about 30 miles southeast of Austin, though moving away from the capital—that’s destroyed nearly 600 homes. And that’s just for starters. Starved of rain for much of the year, Texas is dealing with the ramifications of its worst drought since the 1950s. It’s currently tangling with a whopping 57 wildfires (of which the Bastrop Country fire is just one—currently the deadliest) that officials say have burned upwards of 1,000 homes in the past week alone and savaged over 100,000 acres.

(PHOTOS: Wildfire Burns Across Central Texas)

The wildfires are fueled in part by winds spawned from Tropical Storm Lee, the 12th named storm of 2011 that just blew through Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida panhandle, bringing with it heavy rains and flooding. But not in Texas, where the storm’s tempestuous perimeter instead fueled brushfires.

There’s cause for cautious optimism today as weather reports suggest the winds are calming, down to 5 mph from upwards of 30 mph in Lee’s wake. Texas Gov. Rick Perry interrupted his presidential campaign to the return home, describing the sight of the fires from the air as “surreal.”

“I’ve seen a number of big fires in my life,” he said, according to BBC News. “This is as mean looking as I’ve ever seen, particularly because it was so close to the city.”

Perry added that since December 2010, some 3.5 million acres have been devastated by fires, an area comparable in size to the state of Connecticut.

VIDEO: 500 Homes Torched in Texas Wildfire

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.