BASTROP, Texas — Firefighters began Wednesday to gain control of a wind-stoked blaze that had raged unchecked across parched Central Texas for days, leaving hundreds of charred properties in its wake and causing thousands of people to flee.
As the crisis unfolded, Gov. Rick Perry headed to California for a GOP presidential debate while authorities commanded operations fighting the disaster.
The more than 33,000-acre blaze has blackened about 45 square miles in and around Bastrop, about 25 miles east of Austin, leaving two people dead and consuming nearly 800 homes, the Texas Forest Service said Wednesday.
But crews managed to bring the fire to about 30 percent containment Wednesday and officials anticipated more progress throughout the day, said Mike Fisher, the Bastrop County Emergency Operations Agency's incident commander.
"We're making pretty good progress getting around the perimeter," Fisher said. "We're hoping to say by the end of the shift today, that we can say we're hopeful the fire's not going to get any larger."
The staggering destruction has made the blaze the most catastrophic of more than 170 fires that have erupted in the past week — one of the most devastating wildfire outbreaks in state history, which been blamed for a total of four deaths.
The forest service said it responded to 19 new fires Wednesday totaling 1,490 acres across the state, bringing the total acreage consumed over the past week to more than 130,000 acres.
Texas Task Force 1, an elite search team that was sent to New York following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, was mobilized in Bastrop.
Fisher said the task force will do a "grid search" to "cover every square inch looking for whatever there is to find."
"There are environmental problems, dead animals ... We need experts out there who are equipped to handle whatever is there," he said.
Crews finally got a reprieve Tuesday from winds pushed in by Tropical Storm Lee that whipped the blaze into an inferno over the weekend.
"Even though the fuels are critically dry, the grass is dry and the relative humidity is still pretty low, they were able to take advantage of lower winds," Texas Forest Service spokeswoman April Saginor said.
Bastrop residents weren't all appeased by reports that the fire had been somewhat contained. Paul St. Louis, who left behind goats, pigs and roosters when he evacuated his home on Sunday, lashed out at state and local officials and said federal emergency management officials should have been brought in sooner.
St. Louis said he was frustrated by a lack of information and that he hadn't seen an updated fire map that would tell him if his home was still standing. A map posted outside the fire response headquarters Wednesday morning was last updated at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
"It seems there was no plan to deal with a catastrophe," he said. "I have animals to feed. You can't get back there. You're stranded. No one will tell us anything. All they say is 'I don't know.'"
Perry cut short a presidential campaign trip to South Carolina to deal with the crisis, and on Tuesday toured a blackened area near Bastrop. He left Texas again for the first time Wednesday to head to California and debate GOP rivals.
The conservative Republican said he expects federal assistance with the wildfires but complained that red tape was keeping available bulldozers and other heavy equipment at the Army's Fort Hood, about 75 miles from Bastrop. The post was fighting its own 3,700-acre blaze.Comment on this story
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration has approved seven federal grants to help Texas with the latest wildfires.
About 1,200 firefighters battled the blazes, including crews from as far away as California and Oregon. Five heavy tanker planes, some from the federal government, and three aircraft capable of scooping 1,500 gallons of lake water at a time also helped.
The disaster is blamed largely on Texas' yearlong drought, one of the most severe dry spells the state has ever seen. The fire in Bastrop County is the most devastating wildfire in Texas in more than a decade, eclipsing a blaze that destroyed 168 homes in North Texas in April.
Associated Press writers Michael Graczyk in Houston; Jamie Stengle, Danny Robbins, Diana Heidgerd and Schuyler Dixon in Dallas; Betsy Blaney in Lubbock; Will Weissert in Austin; Paul Weber in San Antonio; and AP photographer Eric Gay in Bastrop contributed to this report.