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Fire crews make gains against Texas blaze

BASTROP, Texas - Firefighting crews started Wednesday to gain control of a wind-stoked blaze that has 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 was faced with the decision to leave the state and participate in a GOP presidential debate or stay home and command operations to fight the disaster.

At least two people have died in the wildfire, which destroyed nearly 800 homes and blackened about 45 square miles in and around the city of Bastrop, near Austin.

The Texas Forest Service said Wednesday that blaze had consumed 785 homes, making it the most catastrophic of the fires that have erupted in the past week across Texas. One of the most devastating wildfire outbreaks in state history has caused four deaths and pulled the state's firefighting ranks to the limit.

But Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald also sounded an optimistic tone, saying firefighters had a "good night" and that no new structures were lost overnight in the battle to contain the 33,000-acre blaze about 25 miles east of Austin. Containment remained at 30 percent.

The forest service said it responded to a total of 19 new fires Wednesday totaling 1,490 acres across the state, bringing the count over the past week to more than 170 fires consuming 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, will be assisting in Bastrop.

The team has dogs that can help look for people trapped in debris, Chief Bob McKee told The Associated Press. "We also have human remains canines that would scent on deceased persons or animals," McKee 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. Texas Forest Service spokeswoman April Saginor said the lighter winds were assisting firefighters in their efforts.

"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," Saginor said.

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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."'

McKee said the task force members would be producing updated maps, but that their role had yet to be defined.

"The purpose of deploying Texas Task Force 1 is to support the community of Bastrop," he said.

"Once we get there today and get into the local area, then they'll decide where we can be best used," McKee said.

Perry cut short a presidential campaign trip to South Carolina to deal with the crisis, and on Tuesday toured a blackened area near Bastrop. The governor has yet to decide whether he will attend the Republican presidential debate in California Wednesday night.

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.

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.

At least 11 other fires exceeded 1,000 acres Tuesday, including a 7,000-acre blaze that has destroyed at least 60 homes and threatened hundreds more about 40 miles northwest of Houston. An 8,000-acre fire has destroyed at least six homes in Caldwell County, next to Bastrop County. In far northeast Texas' Cass County, a 7,000-acre fire burned in heavy timberland.

In one of the smaller blazes, the Mason Creek North subdivision fire in the Austin suburb of Leander, police suspect arson and are looking for four teenagers seen running from a wooded area where the fire started, according to CBS affiliate KEYE-TV.

About 40 people who fled their homes in a Bastrop neighborhood were staying at a community center in the town of Paige. A volunteer, Debbie Barrington, said some people have been sleeping outside on picnic tables under a pavilion, eating food and using toiletries donated by folks not hurt by the fires.

"The first night, we had a child 17 months old," she said. "We didn't have milk. The next morning, I think we had eight gallons. People heard what we needed and brought it in. The response has been unreal."

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