Gov. Rick Perry returned from the presidential campaign trail this afternoon to tour a massive blaze near Bastrop, then thanked emergency responders and urged Texans to remain on guard against wildfires.
"It was a surreal experience today," the governor told assembled press, as smoke billowed to the east of the Bastrop Convention Center that is serving as an emergency command post. He added, "I have seen a number of big fires in my life, and this one is as mean-looking as I've ever seen."
Blazes are burning across the bone-dry state, kicked up by unusually strong winds. The enormous Bastrop fire, reportedly 16 miles long, has destroyed 476 homes so far, according to Mike Fischer of Bastrop's emergency management service, who spoke about an hour before Perry. He described the winds as "horrific." Since December, Perry said, about 3.5 million acres have been destroyed by wildfires — an area roughly the size of Connecticut.
Two Chinooks and four Black Hawk helicopters are among the planes aiding the response, the governor said, and the state may get some federal resources from Fort Hood as well. The Federal Emergency Management Agency may arrive on Wednesday, Perry said, adding that people from California and other states are helping fight the wildfires. Some audience members asked where the planes were, and Perry responded, "The planes are flying."
Perry skipped a televised South Carolina forum with other Republican presidential candidates to tour the fire devastation. Asked whether that was of concern, considering it was a practice round of sorts for a Wednesday night GOP debate in California, the governor responded, "I'm not paying any attention to politics right now," to loud applause.