Fresh crews, light winds help fight Texas wildfires

SAN ANTONIO Sat Sep 10, 2011 5:37pm EDT

1 of 5. A truck, destroyed by the Bastrop wildfire, is seen in Bastrop, Texas September 10, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Joshua Lott

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - More than a thousand firefighters, aided by lighter winds, on Saturday began to beat back raging wildfires that have scorched Texas for the past six days torching 1,600 homes and killing four people.

"We've had quite a bit of success today," Bill Paxton of the Texas Forest Service said of the battle to contain six dozen major blazes that have torched 154,000 acres across Texas since Sunday.

The largest of them, the Bastrop Complex fire, which has burned 1,376 homes and killed two people, was 40 percent contained on Saturday, Paxton said, as 64 aircraft and nearly 1,100 firefighters began to beat back the flames.

Many of the firefighters had been cycled in from other federal agencies to help exhausted firefighters rushed in from across Texas.

"Not only are we making inroads fighting the fires, but having so many more people has allowed us to give the Texas firefighters a much needed rest," Paxton said.

President Barack Obama late on Friday approved federal disaster assistance for parts of the state charred by the blazes, acting after criticism from Governor Rick Perry that the federal government was ignoring the drought in his state.

Wildfires have scorched 3.67 million acres in Texas since January, more than half of all of the acreage destroyed by wildfires nationwide in 2011.

Almost all of the state's 254 counties have banned outdoor burning, and 80 percent of the state is experiencing "exceptional drought" -- the worst of the five categories listed in the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Four people have been killed by fires in Texas since Sunday, when roaring winds from Tropical Storm Lee fanned more than six dozen major fires in the state.

Bastrop County Judge Ronnie McDonald told a midday briefing that the effort being committed to fighting the deadly Bastrop Complex fire has stopped it from spreading, but he warned the fire is far from extinguished.

"Containment is now up to 40 percent, but we are still fighting the fire across the entire fire zone, which is more than 33,000 acres," he said.

'A HURTING SITUATION'

While some of the 5,000 people who have been evacuated from their homes in Bastrop County have been allowed to return to what's left of their property, McDonald says it will be a while before all those displaced are allowed home.

"We are going to get people back into their houses, but there is still going to be a lot of healing that will have to take place, and the entire community is going to have to stand together to make that happen," he said.

The fact that some residents are being allowed back into the burned out area while others are not, is beginning to anger evacuees, who crowd the Bastrop Community Center to scour the lists posted detailing the addresses of destroyed homes.

"It's a hurting situation when you have five kids sitting there, and they don't know what's going on," said Charlie Dayton, who has been unable to return to the site of his home, which was listed as destroyed.

"I just wish they would let people go back to their places," he said.

Bastrop County residents took some relief from the disaster order made late Friday, which makes homeowners and businesses eligible for federal aid, and reimburses local authorities for costs incurred fighting the fires.

"I want to thank the White House and FEMA for responding to our request for a disaster declaration," said Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, who is standing in for Perry as he campaigns for the Republican nomination for president.

"While I'm appreciative that the president granted a limited disaster declaration for Bastrop County, I'm still concerned about the rest of the state, especially the thousands of homes that have been destroyed and families who have been displaced," he added.

While the destructive Bastrop fire has garnered most attention, Paxton said the Riley Road Fire, northwest of Houston, is "burning the most aggressively."

He said the blaze had scorched 21,000 acres and torched 60 buildings, and was just 25 percent contained as of Saturday. The fire has forced the evacuation of dozens of subdivisions.

"I had a chance to look in the direction of where the fire was coming, and it was very close," said Mike Estrada, a resident evacuated from the path of that fire.

"I would say that the flames were 200 feet high."

(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Greg McCune)

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