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Firefighters gain ground on largest Texas wildfire

/ Source: msnbc.com news services

Firefighters gained ground Wednesday against one of the most destructive wildfires in Texas history even as the damage toll rose to 800 homes.

An elite search team was sent out to find any victims as the blaze blackened about 45 square miles around Bastrop and cast a haze over the capital, Austin, about 25 miles to the east.

The air smelled strongly of pine and cedar.

The 34,000-acre Bastrop County Complex fire, which has forced the evacuation of about 5,000 people in the rural community, was about 30 percent contained Wednesday thanks to the easing of winds from Tropical Storm Lee, which fanned flames over the weekend.

"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," said April Saginor, public information officer for the Texas Forest Service.

The fire is one of nearly 200 that broke out in the past week and killed four across Texas, where the countryside is perilously dry because of one of the most severe Texas droughts on record.

Texas Task Force 1, a search team that was sent to New York following the Sept. 11, 2001, 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."

Across the state, about 1,200 firefighters battled the blazes.

The outbreak has made this the state's costliest wildfire season on record, with $216 million in firefighting expenses since late 2010.

24 miles long, 20 miles wideWildfires sweeping across drought-stricken state have destroyed a total of more than 1,000 homes in the last several days, including those in Bastrop.

The Bastrop fire, the largest current blaze, stretches 24 miles long and 20 miles wide at its widest point.

Resident William Clements learned Tuesday that his home in Bastrop was lost. "It was kind of a shock when we came up and saw that it was gone," he said. "But we are recovering from the shock, and landing on our feet."

A list of 243 homes confirmed destroyed was posted for Bastrop residents to check at the county's shelters and in a command center, but it only accounted for a fraction of the houses officials say have been burned.

Resident Geary Garton, his arms covered with bandages and his nose and ears blistered, was cheerily hopeful as he approached the list looking for his house.

Garton said he'd left his home on foot to find a hose on Sunday night when the fires were coming. When he turned back to douse his home with water, fire was blocking him.

"It didn't look all that bad at first, but it came up quick," he said, adding that he had sprinted back through blinding smoke to reach his two dogs, the heat blistering his arms as he ran.

His dogs, Berkley and Clancy, were hiding under the porch, which was untouched by flames. But Garton was too weak to pick them up and had to leave them behind. He expressed hope that they had escaped and would turn up at a shelter.

Then he turned his attention to the list, reading the street names. When he got to K C Drive he stopped talking. He whipped off his glasses, turned on his heel, and wiped his eye as he strode away into the parking lot. He didn't answer questions about whether his home had survived.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, visiting the command center as Gov. Rick Perry was in California preparing for his first Republican presidential debate, said he would ask the federal government to declare the state a disaster area

.

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

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.