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Texas wildfire destroys 1,554 homes

BASTROP, Texas -- The number of homes destroyed by a Texas wildfire has risen to 1,554 and is expected to 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.

Some 100 residents who gathered at a news conference Sunday were told they could begin going back into the scorched areas Monday. A detailed plan will allow them to slowly enter the evacuated areas over the coming week as firefighters and emergency responders ensure the land has properly cooled and the blaze is contained.

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.

Many were given only minutes to evacuate as the raging blaze surrounded homes and neighborhoods. Some had time to only gather a few important belongings. Others left with only the clothes on their back.

Still, Bastrop County Sheriff Terry Pickering said there was no immediate concern for the lives of the 17 people who remain unaccounted for.

"They could have been on vacation," he said.

George Helmke, 77, a retired Delta Air Lines 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." The fire has prevented him from taking heart and esophagus medication he has in his house. "These are expensive medication. I tell these folks that, but they just sort of brush you off," Helmke said.

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