published Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Texas fire destroys 1,554 homes, 17 people missing

BASTROP, Texas — 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.

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.

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.”

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