Firefighters gain ground against Texas wildfire

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

The blaze has left at least two people dead — their bodies were found on Tuesday — blackened about 45 square miles around Bastrop and cast a haze over Austin, 25 miles to the east, 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 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, where the countryside is perilously dry because of one of the most severe droughts on record in Texas. In addition to the two victims in the Bastrop fire, the outbreak is blamed for two deaths elsewhere.

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.

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