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Updated: Thursday, 20 Dec 2012, 9:55 PM CST
Published : Thursday, 20 Dec 2012, 4:18 AM CST
AUSTIN (KXAN) - A man is dead following a North Austin house fire on a Thursday morning when large fires whipped by strong winds forced evacuations, burned homes and fueled several blazes that broke out throughout Austin.
The predawn fires sent crews scrambling with more than 60 firefighters deployed to quell the flames.
Evacuation at Northwest Austin apartment complex
People in and around the International Residences apartment on 9811 Copper Creek Drive east of U.S. 183 and south of Lake Creek Parkway evacuated early Thursday morning. In all, 68 units were destroyed.
Williamson County Sheriff's Office spokesman John Foster said after 8 a.m., that as many as 40-50 people unaccounted for. By mid afternoon, everyone who lived at the complex had checked in with authorities.
Firefighters battled the blaze for about five hours since it started around 1:30 a.m.
How to help
Foster said the apartment complex looked like a "war zone" and that he was uncertain if there were any deaths in the fire. He said he hoped not but could not say for sure that there aren't any bodies in the charred rubble.
While this apartment complex is in Austin, it is in Williamson County. And that's why the Williamson County Sheriff's Office is helping out.
Foster said a rough estimate indicates about 70 apartments are affected.
A Red Cross shelter at Northwest Fellowship Church at 13427 Pond Springs Road was set up for the families displaced by the fire.
Williamson County Emergency Management officials said anyone displaced by the fire can call 512-928-4271 for more shelter information.
Capital Metro sent two buses to evacuate at least 60 fire survivors from the massive fire to the Alamo Drafthouse in the Lake Creek Parkway area and near the U.S. Highway 183 frontage road.
Officials have been able to take one busload of people -- up to 40 people -- to a nearby church. The second CapMetro bus is near the apartment complex so that neighbors can rest on the bus and will be able to get out of the chilly morning spurred by the new cold front.
Crystal Camarena evacuated her apartment after waking up to a commotion of sounds, and she said she saw the massive fire in front of her building.
"It was horrible," she said. "There was only one entrance in and out, and the fire trucks were blocking it."
Camarena said she stood in line idly for about 45 minutes as people struggled to get out of the complex. She said people were in a panic and that firefighters had to cut a hole in the fence to create an exit -- telling people to leave their cars and get out.
Camarena said a fire began in front of her after sparks flew in different directions.
One building collapsed, and a second was fully engulfed in fire. The high winds were a challenge for firefighters amid a day with persisting gusts and a Red Flag Warning.
Meanwhile, no injuries were reported.
Deadly fire on Kellies Farm Lane
The fatality occurred during a two-alarm fire in North Austin that left one home it in ruins and neighboring homes damaged.
The fire at 13125 Kellies Farm Lane started around 2:45 a.m. and quickly escalated to a second alarm. The fire spread to the carport after the entire house collapsed.
There were four adult roommates -- in their mid-20s -- at the time of the fire. The identity of the man who died was not released by mid afternoon.
"It's just horrible," said Chad Corvack, the next-door neighbor who had spoken with the roommates and their friends a couple of times. "I was driving away this morning to go get my kids and it just really hit to me -- like how close that is to our family. And it's just horrible, just to know that that happened. It's just unimaginable."
Corvack managed to make it out safely around 3 a.m. after he heard the commotion in the street. After packing up his wife and children in the car, he noticed from his frontyard that his neighbor's home was completely engulfed in flames.
They ran across the street and watched as the fire spread to his garage. Corvack said a fire wall that separates the garage from his home was completely melted but saved his house from going up in flames.
"The wind was blowing straight that direction, so flames were going over hitting our house from their house," said Corvack. "From the outside, our garage caught on fire. I thought our whole house was gone after that because of the wind. Firefighters did an amazing job."
Austin Fire Battalion Chief Palmer Buck said this was the seventh fire-related death in Austin this year.
He said the previous six deaths happened in homes that didn’t have a working smoke detector. However, the roommates that escaped in this fire said they did have a working smoke detector.
All of the bedrooms were on the second floor.
"After we talked to the three roommates, they said there was somebody stuck inside," said Buck. "At that point, the second story was already coming down, a non-survivable event, a very difficult decision. But the decision was made not to go back inside."
Due to the instability of the charred home, firefighters had to wait for daylight to begin a more intensive search. They found the man inside after the sun came up, and fire investigators are working with homicide detectives -- which is typical protocol when a person doesn't die of natural causes.
"We weren't surprised that we found someone," said Buck.
Because the blaze was so large, neighbors feared it would spread to their homes. It did manage to spread to the home next door and damage another.
It took 60 firefighters to get the main blaze under control after 45 minutes, and they began to evacuate surrounding homes and neighbors.
Dry conditions, debris and the high winds, made for ideal fire conditions, making it harder for fire crews to fight the blaze. Fire crews said the they were on the defense when they arrived.
The home where the main fire broke out is a total loss, and the three roommates are staying with friends. Damage estimates stand at $170,000 for the home and $40,000 for belongings.
The home at 13123 Kellies Farm Lane suffered minor heat damage, with damage estimates at $10,000.
The home at 13127 Kellies Farm Lane had a small fire in the attic, with damage estimates at $40,000. Two adults and two children are staying out of the home, and Red Cross is helping that family.
The investigation was expected to take all day because of the significant damage to the home and the two surrounding it.
Buck said since the fire was deadly, they won't release the cause of the fire until they know the cause of death. Buck also said a major part of the investigation will be why the man who died didn't get out in time.
No other injuries were reported.
Brush fire and power outages in North Austin
A large brush fire that broke out just before 5 a.m. had 6500 Ed Bluestein Blvd. closed in all directions for some time early Thursday morning. That's near Loyola Lane and the University Hills neighborhood, where a large power outage happened but has since been restored.
Scattered power outages left about 4,000 people in the dark and cold by 4 a.m., about 1,800 of those in the University Hills neighborhood alone.
Austin Energy officials said high winds caused the overnight outages, and power is back on for everyone except for 370 people. There are 20 line crews working in 31 locations across the service area to get power back on to those people.
The massive brush fire reportedly crossed the road on Loyola Lane near Ed Bluestein Boulevard, and officials said it is an extensive operation due to the weather. Crews are containing the fire to about three acres.
Texas Department of Transportation officials Tweeted that it was difficult for drivers to see in that area due to the brush fire smoke. They recommended finding another route for drivers.
After smoke cleared a bit, traffic reopened for people heading south on Ed Bluestein, which is part of U.S. Highway 183, just before 7 a.m. And traffic in all directions reopened about 20 minutes later -- with the exception of the Manor Road exit and part of Loyola Lane due to fire equipment in the area.
The cause of the large brush fire remained unknown late into the afternoon.
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