Progress and frustrations in historic Texas wildfire

AUSTIN, Texas Fri Sep 9, 2011 1:01pm EDT

1 of 4. Firefighters work on sections of the 35,000-acre wildfire in Bastrop, Texas, September 8, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Ben Sklar

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AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A deadly and enormously destructive wildfire was still burning on Friday southeast of Austin, but county officials said the nearly 850 firefighters battling the blaze continue to make progress in containing the historic fire.

"Things are looking pretty good out there," said Bastrop County Emergency Coordinator Mike Fisher.

Some 1,386 homes have been destroyed over 34,038 acres in the Bastrop County Complex fire, more homes than any other single blaze in Texas history.

As of Thursday, the fire was 30 percent contained, and officials said that number is likely much higher, but they didn't have a figure to report Friday morning.

Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst sent a request to the White House to declare the entire state of Texas "a major disaster area" earlier in the week and, having not heard back, said he would send another one Friday.

The region in the Bastrop area has been declared a federal disaster area, and officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been on the ground since Tuesday doing damage assessments.

Attention on Friday was on staving off the frustrations of thousands of residents clamoring to get back home.

"We will get out of this," said Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald, adding that safety is the reason many have not been able to go back into their burned neighborhoods yet.

"We're going to get back in, we're going to move forward, it's going to be a better time. We're going to get through this."

The blaze has killed two people and forced the evacuation of 5,000. Some 844 personnel are fighting the fire, McDonald said -- in both a ground battle that includes 44 bulldozers and an air assault with Chinook helicopters.

A DC-10 tanker stood ready to help in Bastrop, but because of the progress being made on the ground, it will likely be diverted to one of the other major blazes burning in Texas.

Some residents have been let into their neighborhoods to view the damage or move back into untouched houses.

FRUSTRATED AND ANGRY

Others, frustrated they've gone nearly a week without seeing their homes, shouted angrily at Dewhurst and county officials during a news conference in Bastrop on Friday morning, demanding to know when they can get back in.

"Let me put it like this," McDonald said. "We will not let anyone back in an area until it is safe."

In a sign of hope and recovery even as the fire continues to burn, school officials announced that they would be reopening schools for 9,000 students across the area on Monday. District officials said hundreds of those students are considered homeless due to the fires, but don't have an official count yet.

Counselors will be on hand to help students and parents as they try to return to "a sense of normalcy," said Steve Murray, the Bastrop schools superintendent.

"We understand that there are issues to deal with far beyond anyone in this district or county has had to deal with before," Murray said.

More than 3.6 million acres in Texas have been scorched by wildfires since November, fed by a continuing drought that has caused more than $5 billion in damage to the state's agricultural industry and that shows no sign of easing.

In the past seven days the Texas Forest Service has responded to 186 fires burning some 156,517 acres across the state.

Firefighters are battling massive blazes in Montgomery County, north of Houston, and Cass County, northeast of Dallas near Texarkana.

The Houston-area blaze has scorched more than 15,000 acres and destroyed 75 homes. It is about 60 percent contained, according to the Texas Forest Service.

The Bear Creek fire in northeast Texas has burned anywhere from 25,000 to 40,000 acres, and state forest officials did not have a containment figure on Friday morning.

Bastrop County, with a population around 75,000 and an average income of $27,499 a year per resident, has been particularly hard hit.

The last several weeks have been extremely destructive for fires, which have burned or threatened nearly every county in Texas, state officials said. Drought, low humidity, high winds and no rain have created tinderbox conditions.

So far, four people have died in fires the broke out across the state over the Labor Day weekend, including a mother and infant daughter who died in northeast Texas on Sunday.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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