Firefighters gain ground against Texas wildfire

By April Castro

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 7 2011 4:16 p.m. MDT

An area destroyed by wildfire is seen, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, in Bastrop, Texas. The fire has destroyed more than 600 homes and blackened about 45 square miles in and around Bastrop. A search team on Wednesday will begin looking for more possible victims of the fire, which has killed two people and forced thousands to evacuate.

Eric Gay, Associated Press

BASTROP, Texas — Firefighters gained ground Wednesday against one of the most destructive wildfires in Texas history even as the number of homes lost reached almost 800, and an elite search team set out to find any victims in the smoking ruins.

Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, resumed his presidential campaign after rushing home over the weekend to deal with the crisis, traveling to California to meet his Republican rivals Wednesday night in his first nationally televised debate.

The blaze has left at least two people dead — their bodies were found on Tuesday — blackened about 45 square miles around Bastrop and cast a haze over Austin, 25 miles to the east, where the air smelled strongly of pine and cedar.

Firefighters reported that the flames were at least 30 percent contained after burning uncontrolled for three days. They credited an easing of the winds from Tropical Storm Lee that had caused the fire to explode over the weekend. Nevertheless, the number of homes reported destroyed rose from around 600 the day before.

The wildfire is the most catastrophic of more than 170 blazes that have erupted in the past week across the Lone Star State, where the countryside is perilously dry because of one of the most severe droughts on record in Texas. In addition to the two victims in the Bastrop fire, the outbreak is blamed for two deaths elsewhere.

Texas Task Force 1, a search team that was sent to New York following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, set out in the Bastrop area, using dogs trained to sniff out bodies.

Mike Fisher, the Bastrop County Emergency Operations Agency's incident commander, said he didn't know if there were any more dead, but "if there are bodies out there, that team is going to find them."

Several thousand people evacuated ahead of the fire, but only around 2,500 registered with the county.

Across the state, about 1,200 firefighters battled the blazes, including crews from as far away as California and Oregon.

The outbreak has made this the state's costliest wildfire season on record, with $216 million in firefighting expenses since late 2010.

The crisis is unfolding months after Perry signed a budget that cut funding to the Texas Forest Service by one-third. Yet the agency insisted that being $35 million lighter hasn't left Texas less equipped to fight the latest fires.

Under the new budget, which went into effect last week, no firefighters in the Forest Service were laid off, and the bulk of cutbacks will be felt by volunteer fire departments that were denied money for new trucks, said Robbie Dewitt, the agency's finance officer.

Moreover, fire officials said they will spend whatever is necessary to deal with the disaster and worry about how to pay for it later.

At the Bastrop convention center, residents streamed in to check maps taped to the pillars that showed the destruction.

Faye Tucker said she could tell just by looking at the map that her home of 20 years was gone, even though it wasn't among the addresses listed as destroyed. She and her husband had recently spent $20,000 to renovate the place.

"It's just stuff. I think that the thing to keep in mind here is so far we only have two confirmed deaths. ... So I'll take that," she said.

Perry returned to the campaign trail after cutting short a visit to South Carolina on Sunday.

"I'm a little disappointed after what he said the other day about pushing politics aside because Texans are his first priority," said Guylaine Williett, who lives near an area that was severely burned. "Now he's out on the campaign trail when us Texans are here in need."

Veteran GOP analyst Alex Castellanos said three days on the ground coordinating state efforts was long enough.

"The public understands his job is to be governor, not fireman," said Castellanos, who worked on President George W. Bush's re-election campaign and more recently worked for Perry opponent Mitt Romney. "Americans know he can meet both his responsibilities as governor and as a Republican candidate."

Associated Press writers Jim Vertuno in Bastrop; Danny Robbins, Diana Heidgerd and Schuyler Dixon in Dallas; Will Weissert in Austin; and Paul Weber in San Antonio contributed to this report.

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