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.
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.
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.
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 Gov. Rick Perry signed a budget that cut funding to the Texas Forest Service by one-third. The agency has insisted that the cut hasn’t left Texas less equipped to fight the latest fires.
91 charged in Medicare fraud crackdown
WASHINGTON — A nationwide law enforcement crackdown has charged 91 people — including doctors and other medical professionals — with participating in Medicare fraud schemes involving $295 million in false billing.
Attorney General Eric Holder and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Wednesday that 70 people were charged in indictments unsealed Tuesday and Wednesday and 21 others were charged earlier, beginning Aug. 24. Charges were filed in Baton Rouge, La.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston; Los Angeles and Miami.
At a news conference, the attorney general said that those arrested are “jeopardizing the integrity of our health care system.” Sebelius called the law enforcement initiative “a powerful warning to those who would try to defraud taxpayers and Medicare beneficiaries.
Eleven of the people charged were doctors, three were nurses and 10 were licensed health professionals.
Over half the defendants — 46 — and $160 million of the total in phony claims announced Wednesday came from South Florida, still leading the nation in Medicare fraud.
Gadhafi whereabouts remain mystery
TRIPOLI, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi’s whereabouts remained a mystery Wednesday, one day after reports of a southbound desert convoy raised suspicions that the deposed Libyan leader might be seeking sanctuary in sub-Saharan Africa.
Officials of Libya’s rebel administration have given contradictory statements about Gadhafi’s whereabouts in recent days, a pattern that continued Wednesday. One rebel military official told The Associated Press that Gadhafi was cornered, while another military aide said the rebels didn’t know the ex-leader’s whereabouts.
Suspicion about where Gadhafi might be hiding seemed to focus on Libya’s vast southern desert, which shares porous borders with Niger, Chad, Algeria and the Sudan. Gadhafi still has many supporters in the south and he cultivated a robust relationship with sub-Saharan African nations.