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More Progress Made On Central Texas Wildfire

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BASTROP (AP) - Hundreds more homes have been razed by a deadly wildfire burning for days in Central Texas, the most destructive blaze of dozens raging across the parched state, but cooler weather Thursday had officials again hoping firefighters could make further progress.

Nearly 1,400 homes have been destroyed in Bastrop County, about 25 miles east of Austin, up from around 800 the day before, according to the Texas Forest Service. The fire, which forced about 5,000 residents from their homes, remains about 30 percent contained.

“The fire didn’t really move last night,” Rudy Evenson, an information officer for an interagency team brought in by the forest service, said Thursday morning. “There’s still a lot to do.”

The National Weather Service said temperatures dipped to near 60 degrees before dawn, but could later peak in the low 90s.

“Our temperature is going to drop down very low, which will increase our firefighting efforts dramatically. We will be able to do a lot of work,” Troy Ducheneaux, a regional fire coordinator for the forest service, said Wednesday.

Firefighters still can’t use one of their biggest weapons against the blaze: a converted DC-10 jetliner from California capable of dropping 12,000 gallons of fire retardant. It arrived Wednesday in Austin, but won’t be used until Friday because authorities need time to assemble the equipment and prepare the retardant, forest service spokeswoman Holly Huffman said.

The fire in and around Bastrop has left at least two people dead, blackened about 45 square miles and cast a haze over the state capitol to the west. One of the two people killed was identified Wednesday as Michael Troy Farr, 49, who died at his home in Smithville.

On Thursday morning, resident Janet Merrill stood close to a map posted at the fire’s command center that showed the Bastrop fire’s perimeter, trying to pinpoint her street amid what appeared to be a tight cluster of squiggly, unmarked thoroughfares. She burst into tears when she thought she found it inside the fire’s pink perimeter, then breathed a sigh of relief upon realizing it was just a couple blocks outside.

“We’ve been pretty in the clear, but it looks like it’s getting close,” said Merrill, 43. “It’s in God’s hands.”

Everson confirmed Thursday that fire officials hope to begin pushing back barriers that have prevented residents from checking on their homes, but said there was no timeline for when that would happen. Frustrations have been growing and officials have reported incidents of residents running roadblocks or sneaking down back roads to get into neighborhoods.

The Bastrop area blaze is among more than 170 wildfires the forest service says ignited across Texas this week that have left nearly 1,700 homes in charred ruins, killed four people and forced thousands to evacuate. It’s one of the most devastating wildfire outbreaks in Texas history and has made this fire season the costliest on record, with an estimated $216 million in firefighting expenses since late 2010.

Gov. Rick Perry left the state Wednesday to participate in a Republican presidential debate in California. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, acting governor in Perry’s absence, said he would sign a request that the federal government declare Texas a major disaster area.

President Barack Obama told Perry on Wednesday that requests for additional assistance would be quickly assessed. The White House said Obama made clear that the federal government will continue to provide assistance to state and local officials fighting the fire.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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