BASTROP, Texas – Firefighters are planning their biggest aerial assault yet Friday of a massive wildfire that has raged for days across Central Texas, destroying nearly 1,400 homes and tens of thousands of acres of drought-parched land.
Officials plan to deploy a converted DC-10 jetliner capable of dropping 12,000 gallons of fire retardant on the blaze and smoldering hotspots across some 45 square miles.
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.
"I still think we turned a corner, a lot of progress is being made," Bastrop County Sheriff Terry Pickering said Thursday afternoon.
The DC-10, one of the nation's largest firefighting jets, is just one more strategy the community unfamiliar with massive wildfires is 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 25 miles west of the blaze, but could not be used until Friday as crews worked to set a temporary plumbing system to funnel retardant into the plane, said Texas Forest Service spokeswoman Holly Huffman.
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 per flight hour as well as a $45,000 per day availability fee -- will 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."
Officials on Thursday allowed some of the evacuated residents to return to neighborhoods on the fire's outskirts that are no longer considered threatened. But authorities declined to say exactly how many were allowed to go back.
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 neighbors 100 yards away 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."