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Cause of record-breaking Texas wildfire deemed "electrical"

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By Jim Forsyth

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The cause of a massive, record-breaking wildfire that destroyed nearly 1,600 homes in Central Texas was "electrical in nature," the Texas Forest Service reported on Tuesday.

But spokeswoman April Saginor declined to provide more information on the Bastrop County Complex fire that killed two people, saying the details were part of the investigation and directing reporters to file requests for more information under the Texas Open Records Act.

Officials with the Bluebonnet Electric Co-op referred questions to the forest service, and County Judge Ronald McDonald could not be reached early Tuesday.

Drenching rains in central Texas over the weekend have allowed crews to bring the devastating fire, the worst in Texas history in terms of property loss, to 95 percent containment.

But the rains will do little to end the devastating drought that has contributed to the worst wildfire season in the state's history, and officials say the outlook is grim as Texas heads into a dry fall.

More than 3.6 million acres in Texas have been scorched by wildfires since November, fed by a continuing drought that has caused more than $5 billion in damage to the state's agricultural industry and that shows no sign of easing.

"Things are far from being back to normal," said Warren Bielenberg of the Forest Service.

"The majority of fuels in Texas are dry grasslands. It only takes an hour of sunshine to get them back to the level where they will burn. It is still a very dangerous situation."

For that reason, he says the army of firefighters which has descended on Texas since a massive outbreak of wildfires over Labor Day weekend will remain on standby.

There are firefighters from every state in the nation except Hawaii, and they have worked to push back dozens of fires which have destroyed tens of thousands of acres in just the past three weeks.

Almost all of the state's 254 counties have burn bans in place. In addition, some counties have outlawed barbecuing, major cities like Austin, Houston and San Antonio have banned smoking in all city parks, and the Texas Department of Transportation's "Don't Mess with Texas" anti-litter program has been expanded to include a website where Texans can snitch on motorists who flick cigarettes out of their car windows.

At the Bastrop Complex fire, burning since September 4, command of the situation is being returned to local officials after weeks of national teams on the ground.

A wide array of agencies have descended on the area, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to help people like Duncan Black.

In Bastrop County, where thousands of acres of pine trees were scorched by the fire, Black surveyed the remains of his burned out home this week and said he is uncertain whether to rebuild.

"I don't know," he said. "A lot of the reason we lived here in the first place looks like it doesn't exist any more. We're really going to have to think about it."

(Editing by Karen Brooks and Jerry Norton)