Firefighters gain ground against Bastrop wildfire

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by APRIL CASTRO

Associated Press

Posted on September 7, 2011 at 11:31 PM

Updated Sunday, Nov 24 at 11:21 AM

BASTROP, Texas (AP) — Firefighters gained ground Wednesday against one of the most destructive wildfires in Texas history even as the state said 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 in his first nationally televised debate.

The blaze has left at least two people dead, blackened about 45 square miles around Bastrop and cast a haze over Austin, 25 miles to the west, 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 that the Texas Forest Service 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, which is perilously dry because of one of the state's most severe droughts on record. In addition to the two victims in the Bastrop area fire whose bodies were found Tuesday, the outbreak is blamed for two deaths elsewhere. A total of at 1,188 homes have been destroyed by wildfires in Texas in the last week, including the 800 lost in the Bastrop-area blaze, according to the Texas Forest Service.

One of the two people killed in the Bastrop-area fire was identified Wednesday as Michael Troy Farr, 49, who died at his home in Smithville. Bastrop County officials did not immediately release details about the second victim, who they said was found at a different location.

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, the Forest Service said it will spend whatever is necessary from state coffers to deal with the disaster and have the expenses accounted for later by state leaders.

However, the Fire Service does face some hurdles when it comes to resources.

A converted DC-10 jetliner from California that is capable of dropping 12,000 gallons of fire retardant arrived in Austin on Wednesday but won't be used until Friday morning because officials could not find a qualified pilot to fly it, Forest Service spokeswoman Holly Huffman said. The agency is facing competition for pilots from other states, particularly California, that are also fighting blazes, she said.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday he would sign a request for the federal government to declare Texas a major disaster area. The White House later said President Barack Obama had telephoned Perry to make it clear the federal government will continue to provide assistance to state and local officials fighting the fire.

Obama also assured Perry that requests for additional assistance would be quickly assessed.

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 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."

Before Wednesday night's debate, Perry discussed the fires while chatting backstage with some of his fellow candidates. Herman Cain and then Mitt Romney asked the governor how Texas was faring.

"Have they been brought under control?" Romney asked, talking across the room to Perry.

"It's still too early to tell," Perry responded. "They're serious, they're mean."

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

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