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Texas wildfires evacuees anxious to return home

Updated 4:26 PM ET

BASTROP, Texas - Fire crews made progress Saturday fighting a massive Central Texas wildfire but concerns over still smoldering hotspots kept thousands of residents from returning home.

Tensions flared during a news conference Saturday as some residents shouted questions at county officials, demanding to know when they could return to their homes in the Bastrop area, located about 30 miles east of Austin.

Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald said officials hope to get other residents back as soon as possible, but he didn't know how long that would take.

"This is day seven, tensions are high," McDonald said.

Texas is in the midst of its worst wildfire outbreak in state history. A perilous mix of hot temperatures, strong winds and a historic drought spawned the Bastrop-area fire, the largest of the nearly 190 wildfires the state forest service says erupted this week, killing four people, destroying more than 1,700 homes and forcing thousands to evacuate.

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Around the city of Bastrop, the fire has destroyed nearly 1,400 homes and swept across about 45 square miles of rain-starved landscape.

Officials said residents from one 700-acre area that includes about two dozen homes were allowed to return home Saturday. But Bastrop County Sheriff Terry Pickering said authorities need to be certain that other areas were safe before residents could be allowed back.

"Everybody hang in there and we'll get you back home as soon as possible," he said.

Carl Kreitz was one of the residents eager to get home. The 57-year-old was able to sneak past barricades earlier this week to confirm his home had been destroyed.

Stairs sit in front of a home destroyed by wildfires Friday Sept. 9, 2011 near Whitney, Texas. AP Photo/Waco Tribune-Herald, Duane A. Laverty

"I understand the process. It's just the lack of information that's frustrating," said Kreitz, who along with his wife, daughter, two grandchildren and 89-year-old mother, has been staying at a hotel in Austin.

Gov. Rick Perry's office said families whose homes have been destroyed will receive seven-day hotel vouchers from a nonprofit organization as well as assistance from the state.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had told evacuated residents gathered at the fire command center: "We believe the forward progress (of the fire) has been stopped, thank God for that."

Dewhurst said the state is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state emergency management personnel on specific fire declarations. FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said on Friday the agency "received the first request from the governor for individual aid to help Texas residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the fires, or who suffered other personal losses."

She said FEMA would "work with the White House to review this request as expeditiously as possible."

Dewhurst also made a public plea for President Barack Obama to make a major disaster declaration that he said would remove red tape and give the state access to more resources

On Friday, White House officials announced that President Obama had signed a declaration declaring a major disaster exists in Texas.

The move allows federal funding to be made available to individuals in Bastrop County. Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs.

Officials said the fire was about 40 percent contained Saturday after almost a week of burning. Jack Horner, a spokesman for a team of federal agencies responding to the fire, said officials were closely monitoring the blaze as infrared cameras detected more hotspots Friday night.

He said winds are expected to pick up from 3 to 6 mph Saturday morning to 14 to 19 mph by the afternoon and fire crews are worried that could fuel more hotspots.

The Texas Forest Service has said the Bastrop fire had racked up a bill of at least $1.2 million so far. But the agency cautioned the figure was expected to climb. The early price tag includes firefighting costs but not damage caused by the blaze.

Earlier in Bastrop, tables set up at the entrance to a neighborhood that had reopened a day earlier filled up with donated clothing and toiletries. A first aid station was assembled and streets began to buzz with tree-trimming crews and building contractors.

Officials also announced that schools would reopen Monday. But Bastrop Independent School District superintendent Steve Murray said, "We anticipate the homeless student count in Bastrop ISD to triple, quadruple or even more."

To deal with that, school officials were developing plans to pick up students at hotels, shelters and other locations.

Monica Turner, 34, was growing more frustrated every day. She had seen photographs of her family's house in ashes.

"We have pictures, but pictures don't do any good when you need to have closure and you need to see it face to face," she said. "I need to have that closure so that I can go and move on."

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