By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - As armies of firefighters descend on Texas to fight back massive brush fires that have destroyed more than 1,500 homes in the past week, the sensitive work of helping the victims deal with loss is swinging into high gear.
Local schools reopened on Monday after being shuttered since the fire broke out Labor Day weekend, and every one of the 5,000 residents who were displaced by the record-breaking fire burning southeast of Austin should be able to see their property by Wednesday.
The Bastrop County Complex Fire is about 60 percent contained, Bill Paxton of the Texas Forest Service told Reuters on Monday.
"We're making progress, but we are still not out of the woods until we get significant precipitation," Paxton said.
Some 1,554 homes are confirmed to have been destroyed by the Bastrop fire -- the worst fire in terms of property loss in Texas history -- and two people are confirmed dead.
Firefighting resources across the state have been stretched in recent weeks by more than 200 fires that have flared up since the beginning of the month.
Paxton said calmer winds and higher humidity helped them get a handle on all the fires, including a blaze outside Houston that has destroyed nearly 60 homes.
But with more than 3,000 firefighters battling these blazes across the state crews have been able to put specialized resources where they'll do the most good, he said.
"For instance, if they want a hand crew of twenty people, now they can order up a hand crew," he said, referring to the workers who use hand tools to build firelines that help contain the blazes. "And they can be assured that all of them will be firefighter qualified."
In Bastrop, hope ran high that no more fatalities would be found, as County Judge Ronnie McDonald said search and rescue operations in the burned-out area have been completed.
Of 22 people listed as "unaccounted for" on Sunday, McDonald said the whereabouts of all but two have been confirmed. He said he's confident that the other two are safe and have just not checked in with authorities.
One major step toward getting life back on track was the reopening of schools that were being used as shelters, and as staging points for firefighters.
But school busses were stopping today not at the familiar homes and street corners, but at area motels that hundreds of students now call home.
The "Bus Route List" posted by the Bastrop School District now lists times for student pick up and drop off at the Super Eight, the Best Western, and the Holiday Inn.
Dr. Raymond Edge, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Bastrop, said his ministry now involves "giving hope to people who have no hope whatsoever."
"People come in, and they say to me, 'Oh, Lord, why has this happened to me?'" Edge said. "I respond, 'He has a reason for doing it. Do we know what that reason is? Absolutely not.'"
Edge said it's tough trying to provide comfort for so many people who have lost so much.
"We need to be reminded that God will bring beauty out of ashes," he said.
(Edited by Karen Brooks and Greg McCune)