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Crews prepare biggest aerial assault yet as they surround flames from Central Texas blaze
BASTROP, Texas (AP) ' Firefighters rushed Thursday to prepare their biggest weapon for an aerial assault of a massive wildfire that has raged for days, incinerating nearly 1,400 homes and miles of parched land in Central Texas.
Crews made steady progress against the massive Bastrop County fire and surrounded its biggest flames as they finalized plans to deploy a converted DC-10 jetliner Friday capable of dropping 12,000 gallons of retardant on the blaze and smoldering hotspots across some 45 square miles.
Concern lingered, however, about wind sparking flare-ups or fanning flames outside the area that had been surrounded by containment lines.
"I still think we turned a corner, a lot of progress is being made," said Bastrop County Sheriff Terry Pickering.
The DC-10 ' nation's biggest firefighting jet ' is just one strategy being the community unfamiliar with massive wildfires is employing to finally get control of the blaze. It's been the most catastrophic of nearly 180 wildfires the forest service says erupted across Texas this week in an outbreak that's left nearly 1,700 homes statewide in charred ruins, killed four people and forced thousands of people to evacuate.
Federal forest service officials contacted 10 Tanker Air Carrier, LLC, of Victorville, Calif., which leases the DC-10 to the U.S. Forest Service and states as needed, and asked that the company "ferry it as quickly as possible" to Texas, said CEO Rick Hatton.
The massive plane arrived Wednesday in Austin, about 25 miles west of the blaze, but couldn't be used until Friday because authorities needed time to assemble the equipment and prepare the retardant, forest service spokeswoman Holly Huffman said.
Hatton said because Austin is not a tanker base and doesn't have retardant-loading abilities, a mobile unit needed to be brought in to prepare the plane, accounting for some of the delay getting the tanker in the air. In California, which previously had an exclusive contract with 10 Tanker Air Carrier for a DC-10, there are two locations where the state can load and re-load the tankers with retardant, allowing faster deployment, said Julie Hutchinson, a battalion chief for California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection.
"I think we'll be (in Texas) for a number of days," Hatton said. "We'll be able to do a lot of good because the fires are very close. So we'll fly multiple missions on the Bastrop area, I presume."
Officials on Thursday allowed some of the 5,000 evacuated area residents to return to neighborhoods untouched by fire and no longer considered threatened, but authorities declined to specify exactly how many were being allowed to go back.
The move, however, wasn't enough to console weary evacuees still unable to check on homes in burned areas.
One man shouted "when are you going to let us in?" While another pointedly asked the sheriff how his home would be protected while he was shut out, but neighbors 100 yards away were let in. Even those who remained calm expressed frustration.
"We're just that far from being able to go back in there," said Evelyn Goodrich, pointing to the couple blocks that separated her home from the new roadblock position. "We've been trying every day and they stop us."
Associated Press writers Linda Stewart Ball in Dallas and Chris Tomlinson in Austin contributed to this report.