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Jeff Barnard, Associated Press
A helicopter drops into Battle Creek Canyon outside Mineral, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 with a load of fire retardant for the spearhead of the Ponderosa Fire. Fire officials said they were trying to stop the spread of the fire with retardant and water drops to keep it from running up the canyon and through commercial timberland.

MINERAL, Calif. — Air tankers and helicopters flew repeatedly into a deep rim rock canyon to douse the spearhead of a massive wildfire in Northern California and stop it from driving into a nearby mountain community and Lassen Volcanic National Park.

"This is the critical spot we have on the fire now," CalFire Division Chief Scott Lindgren said Thursday as he watched the air drops of fire retardant and water on flames burning the steep timbered sides of the canyon, about 6 miles west of Mineral.

He was standing in a backyard on the edge of a cliff, where the brush and dirt were colored orange-pink by a recent drop of retardant.

"The further east we go, the harder it is to stop this thing," he said. "The problem is, we catch it up on top (of the basalt rim rock) at night, but we can't catch it on the bottom (of the canyon) because of the cliff."

It has helped to slow the fire's spread so far, reducing the threat to miles of commercial timberland, the mountain community of Mineral, and the park. A logging road to the east was cleared to serve as a contingency line if the air attacks don't stop the fire from running up the canyon.

Sixty-four homes and 20 other buildings have been destroyed, mostly in the Manton area, since lightning ignited the blaze Saturday, state fire spokesman Don Camp said. It was still threatening 900 other homes as it burned a new front to the south.

About 2,500 firefighters were battling the blaze, which has grown to 44 square miles in the piney hills about 25 miles southeast of Redding.

The Ponderosa Fire was 68 percent contained Friday morning, up from 61 percent Thursday evening, said CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant. Full containment is expected early next week

"We've definitely turned the corner, and we're really starting to make good progress in getting a handle on the fire," Berlant said Friday.

Watching the drops with the fire chief were Jane Carney, Kelly Strong and Sherill Jenkins, who said they were ready to leave their vacation home if necessary.

"We'll get out if we're told to get out," Strong said.

They stayed because, Jenkins said, "It's beautiful up here."

Mineral is a town of 187 vacation and year-round homes that serves as the gateway to the national park.

Beth Glenn, whose family owns area commercial buildings dating to 1896 said she was not nervous, having grown up in a firefighting family and living with the frequent fires in Southern California.

Elsewhere in the state, a large wildfire in Plumas National Forest expanded with help from gusty winds. The blaze, about 120 miles north of Sacramento, has consumed 99 square miles since it started at the end of July and threatens about 900 homes. It was 55 percent contained Thursday night.

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The California fires were among several stubborn wildfires in the West. In Washington, crews were still working on a week-old wildfire that has destroyed 51 homes and 26 outbuildings and damaged at least six other homes, authorities said.

The fire, about 75 miles east of Seattle, has caused an estimated $8.3 million in property damage.

In central Idaho, firefighters were burning and removing vegetation near the town of Featherville in hopes of protecting hundreds of evacuated homes from an approaching wildfire. Fire managers said that blaze already has charred 164 square miles, forcing the residents to evacuate due to heavy smoke.

Collins reported from San Francisco.