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BASTROP, Texas -- Firefighters gained ground Wednesday
against one of the most destructive wildfires in Texas history even
as the state said the number of homes lost reached almost 800, and
an elite search team set out to find any victims in the smoking
ruins.

Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, resumed his presidential campaign
after rushing home over the weekend to deal with the crisis,
traveling to California to meet his Republican rivals in his first
nationally televised debate.

The blaze has left at least two people dead, blackened about 45
square miles around Bastrop and cast a haze over Austin, 25 miles
to the west, where the air smelled strongly of pine and cedar.
Firefighters reported that the flames were at least 30 percent
contained after burning uncontrolled for three days. They credited
an easing of the winds from Tropical Storm Lee that had caused the
fire to explode over the weekend. Nevertheless, the number of homes
that the Texas Forest Service reported destroyed rose from around
600 the day before.

The wildfire is the most catastrophic of more than 170 blazes
that have erupted in the past week across the Lone Star State,
which is perilously dry because of one of the state's most severe
droughts on record. In addition to the two victims in the Bastrop
area fire whose bodies were found Tuesday, the outbreak is blamed
for two deaths elsewhere. A total of at 1,188 homes have been
destroyed by wildfires in Texas in the last week, including the 800
lost in the Bastrop-area blaze, according to the Texas Forest
Service.

One of the two people killed in the Bastrop-area fire was
identified Wednesday as Michael Troy Farr, 49, who died at his home
in Smithville. Bastrop County officials did not immediately release
details about the second victim, who they said was found at a
different location.

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

Several thousand people evacuated ahead of the fire, but only
around 2,500 registered with the county.

Across the state, about 1,200 firefighters battled the blazes,
including crews from as far away as California and Oregon.

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

The crisis is unfolding months after Perry signed a budget that
cut funding to the Texas Forest Service by one-third. Yet the
agency insisted that being $35 million lighter hasn't left Texas
less equipped to fight the latest fires.

Under the new budget, which went into effect last week, no
firefighters in the Forest Service were laid off, and the bulk of
cutbacks will be felt by volunteer fire departments that were
denied money for new trucks, said Robbie Dewitt, the agency's
finance officer.

Moreover, the Forest Service said it will spend whatever is
necessary from state coffers to deal with the disaster and have the
expenses accounted for later by state leaders.

However, the Fire Service does face some hurdles when it comes
to resources.

A converted DC-10 jetliner from California that is capable of
dropping 12,000 gallons of fire retardant arrived in Austin on
Wednesday but won't be used until Friday morning because officials
could not find a qualified pilot to fly it, Forest Service
spokeswoman Holly Huffman said. The agency is facing competition
for pilots from other states, particularly California, that are
also fighting blazes, she said.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday he would sign a request
for the federal government to declare Texas a major disaster area.
The White House later said President Barack Obama had telephoned
Perry to make it clear the federal government will continue to
provide assistance to state and local officials fighting the fire.

Obama also assured Perry that requests for additional assistance
would be quickly assessed.

At the Bastrop convention center, residents streamed in to check
maps taped to the pillars that showed the destruction.

Faye Tucker said she could tell just by looking at the map that
her home of 20 years was gone, even though it wasn't among the
addresses listed as destroyed. She and her husband had recently
spent $20,000 to renovate the place.

It's just stuff. I think that the thing to keep in mind here
is so far we only have two confirmed deaths. ... So I'll take
that, she said.

Perry returned to the campaign after cutting short a visit to
South Carolina on Sunday.

I'm a little disappointed after what he said the other day
about pushing politics aside because Texans are his first
priority, said Guylaine Williett, who lives near an area that was
severely burned. Now he's out on the campaign trail when us
Texans are here in need.

Veteran GOP analyst Alex Castellanos said three days on the
ground coordinating state efforts was long enough.

The public understands his job is to be governor, not
fireman, said Castellanos, who worked on President George W.
Bush's re-election campaign and more recently worked for Perry
opponent Mitt Romney. Americans know he can meet both his
responsibilities as governor and as a Republican candidate.

Before Wednesday night's debate, Perry discussed the fires while
chatting backstage with some of his fellow candidates. Herman Cain
and then Mitt Romney asked the governor how Texas was faring.
Have they been brought under control? Romney asked, talking
across the room to Perry.

It's still too early to tell, Perry responded. They're
serious, they're mean.

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