ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And as we heard, Texas Governor Rick Perry chose not to attend today's forum in South Carolina because more than 60 wildfires have exploded across Central and East Texas. They've created a hellish Labor Day for thousands of Texans. Two people have died so far. The worst fire is in Bastrop County, just southeast of Austin, where NPR's John Burnett reports the blaze has been burning out of control for more than a day.
JOHN BURNETT: No one in Bastrop has ever seen anything like it. The tall, pine forests that were a favorite getaway for campers and city commuters have erupted into an inferno. Driven by a relentless north wind, the blaze has jumped a broad, four-lane highway and the Colorado River - twice - as it keeps getting bigger. Carolyn and Devan Laird are mother-daughter firefighters with the Bastrop Fire Department.
CAROLYN LAIRD: When it first started we were out there and we got overran, we had to get out. We had to evacuate and it just burned everything in its path. Forest, houses, everything, cars, anything that was there was burned. Yeah.
BURNETT: With this wind and these dry conditions can you actually fight this fire?
DEVAN LAIRD: No, the only thing you can do is get people out. At this point, all you can do is let the fire take its course and hopefully that everybody is out in time.
BURNETT: Throughout town, people stop where they are, shade their eyes, and gaze toward the east where a great billow of smoke rises into the cloudless sky, turning from gray-brown to dirty-white as it drifts south. Now and again, a helicopter or air tanker flies toward it, looking tiny against the immense smoke cloud. By Monday afternoon, authorities reported the blaze had damaged or destroyed 476 homes. Five thousand people have evacuated.
A group of evacuees gathers in the parking lot of a Shell station on Highway 95 at a police roadblock about seven miles from the fire.
NANCY ALLEN: We left about 6:00 last night and the power went out at about 5:30 for good. And we called the power company, I went outside to get a better signal, looked up, huge smoke clouds and I knew it wasn't normal.
BURNETT: Nancy Allen and her husband, a construction foreman, grabbed their 4-year-old daughter Minnie along with three dogs and three roosters, packing them into two vehicles, and racing away from the approaching flames. They've been here at the gas station ever since.
NANCY ALLEN1: We slept here last night in the parking lot, I didn't sleep a lot. Woke up, praying, crying, go back to sleep for a minute, pray, cry. I mean, we got a lot of people helping and everything for us.
BURNETT: Allen and her neighbor, Evelyn Sanky, comfort one another.
EVELYN SANKY: I was at state park. When I got there literally three minutes after I arrived I was evacuated. It's something that you have to live it to know what we're going through.
BURNETT: Governor Rick Perry, who is campaigning for president in South Carolina, abruptly flew back to Texas today. A beleaguered spokesperson for the Texas Forest Service was quoted as saying: We've completely depleted our resources. We're on every fire we can possibly handle and then some.
Firefighters are streaming here from all over the state, and beyond its borders. Mike Simmons, from Lake Tahoe, California, sits in a U.S. Forest Service water truck idling beside the highway, waiting for a bulldozer to arrive so they can go join the fight.
MIKE SIMMONS: Mother Nature has the upper hand and we'll try our best. Safety for firefighters and public first.
BURNETT: The fire is so fast and so hot, devouring dried-out loblolly pine forests, that it's still largely being fought from aircraft. The ground battle will follow. John Burnett, NPR News, Bastrop, Texas.