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Despite calming winds, firefighters have yet to get control of destructive Texas wildfire
BASTROP, Texas (AP) ' One of the most destructive wildfires in Texas history is slowing down thanks in part to calming winds, but stretched-thin firefighting crews have yet to gain any control of the blaze that is plowing across rain-starved grasslands now littered with hundreds of charred homes.
Raging with zero containment for days, the wind-fueled fire has destroyed more than 600 homes and blackened about 45 square miles in and around Bastrop, a city near Austin. An elite search team on Wednesday will begin looking for more possible victims of the fire, which has killed two people and forced thousands to evacuate.
Crews finally got a reprieve Tuesday from winds pushed in by Tropical Storm Lee that whipped the blaze into an inferno over the weekend. Increased humidity was moving in overnight, and officials were expected to report some containment in the morning, Texas Forest Service spokesman John Nichols said.
"Tonight should be a good night, tomorrow should be a good day ' we hope," Nichols said late Tuesday. "The reason why it hasn't been able to be contained is the wind. We still have a lot of active fire on the line, but today was the first day we had very light wind."
The blaze is the most catastrophic of the more than 180 fires that have erupted in the past week across Texas, marking one of the most devastating wildfire outbreaks in state history. The fires have destroyed more than 1,000 homes, caused four deaths and pulled the state's firefighting ranks to the limit.
In a housing development near Bastrop, Willie Clements' two-story colonial home was reduced to a heap of metal roofing and ash. A picket fence was melted. Some goats and turkeys survived, but about 20 chickens and ducks died in a coop that went up in flames.
"We lost everything," said Clements, who with his family took a picture of themselves in front of a windmill adorned with a charred red, white and blue sign that proclaimed, "United We Stand."
"This is the beginning of our new family album," the 51-year-old said.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry cut short a high-profile presidential campaign trip to South Carolina to deal with the crisis, and on Tuesday toured a blackened area near Bastrop, about 25 miles from Austin. He later deployed Texas Task Force 1, the same search team sent to New York following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"Pretty powerful visuals of individuals who lost everything," Perry said after the tour. "The magnitude of these losses are pretty stunning."
The conservative Republican said he expects federal assistance with the wildfires but complained that red tape was keeping available bulldozers and other heavy equipment at the Army's Fort Hood, about 75 miles from Bastrop. The post was fighting its own 3,700-acre blaze.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the Obama administration has approved seven federal grants to help Texas with the latest wildfires.
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. The fire in Bastrop County is the most devastating wildfire in Texas in more than a decade, eclipsing a blaze that destroyed 168 homes in North Texas in April.
At least 11 other fires exceeded 1,000 acres Tuesday, including an 8,000-acre blaze that destroyed at least six homes in Caldwell County, next to Bastrop County. In far northeast Texas' Cass County, a 7,000-acre fire burned in heavy timberland. And in Grimes County, about 40 miles northwest of Houston, a 3,000-acre fire destroyed nearly two dozen homes and threatened hundreds more.
In at least one neighborhood in Bastrop, flames hop-scotched a street where houses were tucked among oaks, pines and cedar trees. The Postal Service delivered mail to burned homes where only mailboxes were left standing.
John Chapman's home on about 20 acres was only singed and had some smoke damage, but the vintage-car collector lost about 175 vehicles he kept in a garage or under pole barns. His losses included about a dozen Corvettes and a Shelby Cobra.
As ashes swirled and tree stumps still spit flames, the 70-year-old Chapman pointed out the melted remains of a 1966 Pontiac GTO, a '57 Chevrolet pickup and a 1947 Studebaker pickup, and said: "You can either laugh or you can cry. You might as well laugh."
"The house is safe, my wife and I are alive and good, and I'm not going to worry about it," he said.
About 40 people who fled their homes were staying at a community center in the town of Paige. A volunteer, Debbie Barrington, said some people have been sleeping outside on picnic tables under a pavilion, eating food and using toiletries donated by folks not hurt by the fires.
"The first night, we had a child 17 months old," she said. "We didn't have milk. The next morning, I think we had eight gallons. People heard what we needed and brought it in. The response has been unreal."
Michael Graczyk reported from Houston. Also contributing to this story were Associated Press reporters Jamie Stengle, Danny Robbins and Schuyler Dixon in Dallas, Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Will Weissert in Austin, Paul Weber in San Antonio, and AP Photographer Eric Gay in Bastrop.