Lull in hot weather helps crews at Western blazes

By Terry Collins

Associated Press

Published: Friday, July 6 2012 4:24 p.m. MDT

Skyscrapers in downtown Denver are obscured by smoke drifting down from fires in Wyoming, eastern Montana and western South Dakota on Wednesday, July 4, 2012. While the wildfires are contained in Colorado, states to the north are facing an uphill battle as blazes burn unabated within their borders on Independence Day.

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Firefighters around the West on Friday were taking advantage of improving weather conditions to make strides against stubborn wildfires — even containment in some locales — that have destroyed homes, forced evacuations and scorched hundreds of thousands of acres of timber and brush.

In Redding, Calif., a growing blaze was threatening dozens of homes amid tinder-dry conditions. It erupted into a 2-square-mile fire less than a day after it was spotted.

"Even though there are no extreme winds and temperatures, this fire really burned because of how dry the conditions are," said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "That's concerning because when you don't have peak fire conditions, you still have a blaze that burned so quickly."

In Colorado, crews expected to have the state's most destructive wildfire fully contained by day's end. Colorado Springs officials lifted evacuation orders for 126 more homes at a 28-square-mile fire that started late last month and has damaged or destroyed nearly 350 homes and killed two people.

Coroner's officials identified the victims as 74-year-old William Everett and his wife, Barbara, 73. Dispatch recordings show the deadly fire appeared to have started near a popular hiking trail west of Colorado Springs, The Denver Post (http://bit.ly/RqTtsM ) reported, though the cause remained under investigation.

In Wyoming and Montana, a lull in hot weather, damp conditions and shifting winds helped thousands of firefighters at separate blazes.

The largest of Wyoming's fires, the roughly 150-square-mile Arapaho Fire burning northwest of Wheatland, received a good soaking from a rainstorm Thursday night, state Forester Bill Crapser said. More than 1,000 firefighters have been assigned to the fire, which is 45 percent contained.

Temperatures in the mid-80s, higher humidity and calm winds aided crews at a 95-square-mile fire northwest of Newcastle, a town of about 3,500 near northeast Wyoming's Black Hills. About 25 families were evacuated from Newcastle's outskirts.

In southeast Wyoming, aircraft, including four large air tankers, helped increase containment of a 16-square-mile fire to 55 percent. The tankers included two military C-130 cargo planes from a fleet that was reduced to seven when one crashed Monday in South Dakota's Black Hills.

"We really knocked it for a change, instead of us getting whacked," said Larry Helmerick, spokesman at the fire. Authorities planned to allow more people to return to dozens of evacuated summer cabins near the Colorado line in Medicine Bow National Forest.

Firefighters also reported progress on a 145-square-mile fire surrounding Laramie Peak, about 100 miles northwest of Cheyenne.

Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said the damp conditions raise hopes that firefighters will have an "opportunity to wrap these fires up, and we may have a bit of a respite in the next couple of days."

In southeastern Montana, more than 1,300 firefighters made headway on five blazes that officials are managing as one 480-square-mile wildfire so they can quickly deploy resources.

Fire managers took advantage of a lull in the weather to make headway on the state's largest forest fires, enabling them to reopen U.S. Highway 212 on Friday after it had been closed due to the 388-square-mile Ash Creek Fire.

The state's largest fire was 70 percent contained as of Friday morning after it didn't make any major runs on Thursday. Fire managers said the fire was active on the northeastern flank, but they were aided with rain on Thursday night as the reined it in.

"Slow and steady. We want the lines to hold," fire information officer Dixie Dies said.

At a 72-square-mile fire near Fort Howes, managers worked to connect containment lines dug by residents.

In Utah, rain and cooler temperatures helped crews hold lines on blaze that has burned nearly 13 square miles about 30 miles southeast of Cedar City. The fire threatened 550 cabins and summer homes in Dixie National Forest. Up to a quarter-inch of rain fell on Utah's largest wildfire, a 160-square-mile blaze east of Delta.

The National Weather Service said moderate temperatures were expected in Colorado and Wyoming through the weekend but warned that hot and dry weather was expected for Montana.

Associated Press writers Mead Gruver in Cheyenne, Wyo; Matt Gouras in Helena, Mont.; Paul Foy in Salt Lake City and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.

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