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Texas wildfire partly tamed; up to 22 people unaccounted for

By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - As many as 22 people who were ordered to evacuate by one of the worst brush fires in Texas history remained unaccounted for on Sunday, authorities said, even as firefighters appeared to be gaining the upper hand over the blaze.

The names of the 22 were posted in the Bastrop Community Center on Sunday alongside the now 49-page-long list of the 1,554 homes that have been destroyed in the so-called Bastrop Complex Fire -- the worst, in terms of property loss, in state history. The fire has now consumed 34,000 acres.

Bastrop County Sheriff Terry Pickering cautioned that the list only reflected people whose whereabouts were unknown -- and as the day progressed, officials said "some" of the missing had been found.

The others, Pickering said, "have not checked into a shelter. They could be on vacation. They could be with friends. If you know them, please have them contact us so we can be sure they are safe and sound."

Stepped-up efforts to battle the massive brush fires burning across Texas, including the arrival of 2,000 firefighters and dozens of helicopters and aerial tankers, have helped push back the flames in many places, including Bastrop, authorities said on Sunday.

"Starting Monday morning, more people will be allowed to re-enter their homes or their property," Pickering said to loud applause on Sunday at the community center, which has become a gathering place for the 5,000 people forced from their homes.

The fire is now more than 50 percent contained and Bill Paxton of the Texas Forest Service said he expects the containment numbers to grow over the coming two days.

"Today has been very productive," he said. "We are making a lot of progress."

The winds that whipped up the fires last week have died down, providing a boost to firefighters, Paxton said.

"The forward progression of the Bastrop Complex fire has stopped," he said. "But now we're doing house to house firefighting, and the dead grass between these homes continues to provide fuel for these fires."

Paxton said the other major fire burning in Texas, the Riley Road Fire northwest of Houston, is also 50 percent contained. But he warned that fire, which has destroyed 59 homes, is still aggressively moving toward populated areas.

State emergency officials are now turning their efforts to helping the people affected by the fires, which have destroyed nearly 2,000 homes in Texas just in the past week.

Many people who live in the area affected by the Bastrop fire said they were becoming increasingly frustrated that they are not being allowed back into their homes.

"I know exactly where my street is. I can tell you that my house is gone. OK, move on. But I can't do that," said Monica Taylor, who found her address on the list of destroyed homes which is updated daily at the community center.

Governor Rick Perry's office announced Sunday that $250,000 from the Texas Disaster Relief Fund is being distributed to people who have lost homes to provide one-week hotel vouchers.

The declaration of Bastrop County as a federal disaster area on Friday will make victims eligible for a wide range of other programs. Perry said the declaration should be extended statewide, pointing out that 140 separate fires have erupted across Texas just in the past seven days, consuming 154,000 acres.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has extended fire suppression grants, which help local fire departments pay for the costs of fighting the brush fires, to 55 Texas counties.

The root problem is a year-long drought. More than 80 percent of Texas is listed as experiencing "exceptional drought," the most severe category, in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's U.S. Drought Monitor.

Paxton said the grass was already dead and trees were dying, describing the moisture content of Texas grass today at what he called an "unheard of" 2 percent.

"We have another day or so to get a handle on these fires, because on Tuesday we're expecting the winds to pick up," he said. "What we really need is rain. But right now, there is no relief in sight."

(Editing by James B. Kelleher and David Bailey)

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