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Texas wildfires leave survivors with little but gratitude to be alive

Texas wildfires that spread across Bastrop County this week have forced many residents into shelters, where they recount narrow escapes and retain an enduring hope for the future.

By Staff writer / September 8, 2011

Raquel Herrera and Jeffrey Auckland stand at the Bastrop Middle School, in Bastrop, Texas, which has been turned into a shelter for residents forced to evacuate their homes because of the Texas wildfires.

Mark Clayton/The Christian Science Monitor

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Bastrop, Texas

“Pray for rain” reads the sign at a fast food restaurant on the highway six miles west of Bastrop, Texas.

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“We love you Bastrop,” says another sign just a few miles from the tiny Texas town at the center of the area that is now considered the hardest hit by historic wildfires in the state.

Since December, some 21,000 Texas wildfires have burned 3.6 million acres and more than 1,500 structures, including nearly 800 homes since Sunday. At its peak, a 14-mile-wide fire burned across Bastrop County, 25 miles east of Austin. The Bastrop fire now ranks as the single most destructive in Texas history.

IN PICTURES: Texas wildfires

State officials are looking to federal authorities for help. President Obama on Wednesday told Gov. Rick Perry federal authorities would act swiftly on the state's requests for aid. But in Bastrop, many people are just beginning to sort through changes in their lives that they cannot yet fully comprehend.

Acrid gray and brown smoke hung on the horizon Wednesday from a fire that, in recent days, has swept through numerous housing developments and is still only 30 percent under control. Tropical storm Lee brought no rain, but its winds fanned the flames into a curtain of fire that roared through the area, gobbling up drought-stricken trees, shrubs, and homes.

All that is left for many are a few possessions, some pets, and family members. Two people have been reported killed by the Bastrop area fire. Survivors who outraced the flames ponder their future.

Saving Chunk and Grommit

Raquel Herrera sits, holding her husband Jeffrey Auckland's hand across a cafeteria table at the Bastrop Middle School. The school has been converted into a makeshift shelter to help thousands of suddenly homeless residents like her. Thankfully, a neighbor phoned Sunday afternoon to warn Ms. Herrera that a fast-moving wall of flame was just on the other side of the ridge from her subdivision – and headed straight for it, she says.

“I went outside after she called and looked up and the sky was still clear, but I noticed that two of my neighbors were packing up their cars and throwing stuff into it,” she says, her eyes moist. “I realized right away that I had better go too.”

Grabbing her 4-year-old son, Herrera put him in the car then phoned her husband at work as she grabbed clothes, important documents, and family pets – four dogs, two cats. After picking up her husband, they decided to race back and pick up their two big snakes as well, a python and a boa constrictor.

“I couldn't leave Chunk and Grommit there,” Mr. Auckland says. But on the return trip they also met a sheriff's deputy who told them they had to leave immediately, because the fire was fast approaching. They never saw the flames but did as ordered.

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