A massive aerial assault on a wildfire that has raged for days across Central Texas, destroying nearly 1,400 homes and tens of thousands of hectares of drought-parched land, is on hold as firefighters have been able to tame the biggest flames.
Officials had planned to deploy a converted DC-10 jetliner capable of dropping more than 45,000 litres of fire retardant on the blaze and smouldering hotspots across nearly 166 square kilometres.
Crews have been making steady progress against the blaze burning in and around Bastrop, closing in around its biggest flames.
Concern lingers, however, about wind sparking flare-ups or fanning flames outside the area.
Another La Nina weather pattern promises to bring drier, windier cold fronts in the months ahead. That could set the stage for even more destructive blazes as the state prepares for autumn — traditionally its busiest wildfire season.
"I still think we turned a corner, a lot of progress is being made," Bastrop County Sheriff Terry Pickering said Thursday afternoon.
'What puts fires out, what's most effective are the men and women on the ground.'—Tom Harbour, national fire director, U.S. Forest Service
The DC-10, one of the nation's largest firefighting jets, is just one more strategy the community unfamiliar with massive wildfires is considering employing to finally get control of the blaze.
The fire has been the most catastrophic of nearly 180 wildfires that the forest service says erupted across Texas this week. The outbreak has 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. The state asked that the company "ferry it as quickly as possible" to Texas, which also used the tanker in the spring, said CEO Rick Hatton.
The massive plane arrived Tuesday night in Austin, about 40 kilometres west of the blaze, said Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Holly Huffman.
Tankers not 'magic tools'
Huffman said Texas has retardant plants in place at airports other than Austin, but runways at those sites are neither approved to handle such a large aircraft nor as close to the Bastrop blaze.
She said the DC-10, which costs the state $12,000 US per flight hour as well as a $45,000 per day availability fee, was to be used in addition to smaller aircraft that have been flying since the fire broke out Sunday.
"These tankers aren't magic tools, rather they help to slow down and cool down the fire," she said. "Ground resources still have to go in and contain and extinguish the fire."
Tom Harbour, national fire director for the U.S. Forest Service, said retardant can help make the flames shorter and smaller, allowing firefighters on the ground to make headway.
"What puts fires out, what's most effective are the men and women on the ground," he added.
Some of the 5,000 Bastrop-area residents forced to flee their homes amid the fire said they wished the state could have gotten more resources earlier in the week.
"Maybe it could have speeded the process up," said Bruce Anderson, a welder who left his home Sunday. "We definitely needed more help a few days ago."
Residents complain Perry hasn't helped quick enough
Meanwhile, residents affected by the wildfire are growing impatient with state officials and questioning why Gov. Rick Perry hasn't spent more time there.
Some Bastrop County residents yelled at Texas Lt.-Gov. David Dewhurst during an appearance at the command centre, asking where Perry is and why they haven't had any housing help.
Perry, who is running for the Republican nomination for president, interrupted his campaign and returned to Texas for two days before heading to California to take part in a televised debate.
Perry's office said "everything that needs to be done to respond to these fires is being done."
Dewhurst said the White House hasn't yet replied to a request for aid.
However, President Barack Obama has promised federal help to Perry.
Officials on Thursday allowed some of the evacuated residents to return to neighbourhoods on the fire's outskirts that are no longer considered threatened. But authorities declined to say exactly how many were allowed to go back.
'Things burn to the ground'
Access was opened to hundreds of homes in Tahitian Village. Most appeared untouched, but the pockets of destruction were complete.
"When they say things burn to the ground, they really mean burn to the ground," said Mary Pierce, who for 22 years lived on a quiet street where pines push up into backyards. She was one of only two residents to lose a home on the block.
Pierce stared in disbelief Thursday at her foundation, where all that stood was a brick faEcade and a chimney. Lumped metal appliances suggested a kitchen or laundry room; a metal bed frame, a bedroom.
Evacuees that were still being kept away from their homes expressed frustration.
One man shouted at authorities "when are you going to let us in?" Another pointedly asked the sheriff how his home would be protected while he was shut out, but nearby neighbours were allowed to return.
"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."