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Texas wildfire evacuees anxious to return home

Texas is in the midst of its worst wildfire outbreak in state history.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

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.

"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.

Obama offers aid
On Friday, White House officials announced that President Barack 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.

Perry was pleased that Obama granted the aid to Bastrop County, according to a statement to Reuters on Saturday.

"We will continue urging the federal government to expand the declaration to ensure all Texans who have been affected by the thousands of fires across the state get the assistance they need," Perry said in a statement provided by Allison Castle, a spokeswoman.

Perry, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination to challenge Obama, has been criticizing the federal government for months, saying it was ignoring the plight of Texas while offering disaster assistance to other parts of the country hit by hurricanes, tornadoes and other calamities.

Perry has also repeatedly criticized the federal government for intervention in his state's affairs.

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.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this story.