By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - 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.
Authorities in Gregg County, in northeast Texas, say a 20-year-old woman and her 18-month-old daughter were killed on Sunday when they were trapped in their mobile home by flames.
The Texas Forest Service estimates 424 homes may have been destroyed so far, including 300 from the so-called Bastrop County Complex fire east of Austin.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the front-running Republican Party presidential candidate, canceled his appearance at a candidate roundtable in South Carolina on Monday to return to Austin.
"I have seen a lot of mean-looking fires in my time, but this one is the meanest. You realize the devastation when you see it first hand," Perry said at a news briefing.
"I am not paying any attention to politics right now. There are people's homes and lives in danger, and that is far more important," he said to a smattering of applause.
"I have never seen a fire season like this. We have lost more than 3.5 million acres to brush fires, that is an area larger than the state of Connecticut," he said. "We have a long way to go to get this thing contained."
More than 3.6 million acres (1.5 million hectares) in Texas have been scorched by wildfires since November, fed by a continuing drought that has caused more than $5 billion in damage to the state's agricultural industry and shows no sign of easing any time soon.
The Texas Forest Service responded on Sunday to 63 new fires burning on more than 32,000 acres, including 22 new large fires.
Officials said the worst of the fires was the Bastrop County Complex fire, which stretched for 16 miles.
They said the fire had jumped a road that they had hoped to set up as a barrier, and has now spread to 25,000 acres.
"We have about 16 miles long at this time and about 6 miles wide," said Bastrop County Fire Chief Ronnie McDonald.
Residents said the fire had moved very quickly, driven by the strong, gusty winds.
"It's pretty dire," Justice Jones of the Forest Service said on Monday morning.
The Bastrop Complex fire has forced the evacuation of several subdivisions in the county of 70,000 people.
"This is a shock," said one man as he drove out of the fire zone near Bastrop with his family. "We had some nice plans for Labor Day, and this gives you a sick feeling."
The Texas Forest Service said dozens of aircraft were responding to fires, including four heavy airtankers, 15 single-engine airtankers, and 13 aerial supervision aircraft.
In the Steiner Ranch area of Austin, a separate fire has forced the evacuation of some 1,000 homes. One woman desperately scanned the wall of thick black smoke and flames looking for her lost dog.
"I was just driving around the neighborhood, I'm five months pregnant, and I was taking in smoke and I was freaking out," she said. "I looked to the right of me and everything over there was full of fire, it was just gone."
About 200 homes had to be evacuated due to a brush fire in the Austin suburb of Pflugerville, and about 150 homes were evacuated in Longview, in east Texas. A dozen homes were under mandatory evacuation on Monday near Tyler in east Texas.
(Reporting by Jim Forsyth; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Peter Bohan and Eric Beech)