Cooler weather helps crews battling Western wildfires

A firefighting helicopter makes a water drop over a wildfire near Bradbury, California. (Nick Ut, AP)
A firefighting helicopter makes a water drop over a wildfire near Bradbury, California. (Nick Ut, AP)

Los Angeles – Cooler, more humid weather gave at least some temporary help on Wednesday to crews battling dangerous wildfires in Southern California, while other blazes across the West were on the move.

Improved weather in the aftermath of a severe heat wave allowed firefighters to make progress against two fires in the steep San Gabriel Mountains 20 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Some evacuations below in the foothill city of Duarte were lifted.

A fleet of helicopters and air tankers and other resources are helping fight the fires totalling about 7½ square miles.

Despite fears that stronger winds could make the fire resurgent and challenges of tough terrain, containment was expanded from 10 to 15% by Wednesday evening.

"They're starting to make good progress, but there's a lot of line to put in, and it's in a real inaccessible area," incident commander Mike Wakoski said. "It's very hard for the firefighters to engage the fire safely, but they are out there doing so."

No homes have been lost, though flames have come close at times. More than 850 homes were ordered evacuated earlier this week, and 534 were cleared for residents' return on Wednesday.

Near the Mexican border, two residences and 11 outbuildings burned in a wildfire about 40 miles southeast of San Diego. A thousand structures were threatened by the blaze, which grew to just over 10 square miles and was only partially contained.

Falling temperatures, rising humidity and cloud cover has helped, said Capt Kendal Bortisser of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. But firefighters still must deal with rough terrain and vegetation that has not burned in decades, he said.

Weather also helped on the rugged coast west of Santa Barbara. Fog moved into the area scorched by a blaze that began more than a week ago, and most mandatory evacuations were called off. With the more than 12-square-mile fire almost fully surrounded, firefighters shifted focus to battling hot spots within containment lines.

Evacuated

Elsewhere in the West, a forest fire near the Colorado-Wyoming line exploded in size and forced campers to evacuate.

A shift in the wind turned a blaze burning slowly in a heavily wooded area with no permanent residents into a fast-moving threat, growing from 1 square mile to about 5. Trees killed by a beetle infestation were fuelling the flames 140 miles north of Denver and 2 miles from Wyoming.

No more than 100 campers and people staying in cabins fled, Routt National Forest spokesperson Aaron Voos said. More firefighters were expected, but getting more help was difficult because of the other Western blazes.

"Resources are kind of hard to come by right now," Voos said.

In southwest Utah, a fire forced evacuations of at least 185 homes in the town of Pine Valley, about 35 miles north of the city of St George.

The US Forest Service said on Wednesday that the blaze has torched more than a square mile and additional evacuations could come. The firefight was hindered by a drone flying near the blaze, which Gov Gary Herbert called "completely unacceptable."

In eastern Arizona, firefighters expected to keep a wildfire spanning some 67 square miles from moving any closer to a rural town. The flames threatening the community of Cedar Creek made no significant movement in the last 24 hours thanks to sparse vegetation.

More than 15 000 people in nearby mountain communities have been told to prepare to evacuate.

In central New Mexico, more evacuees were expected to return home as firefighters inch closer to snuffing out a massive wildfire that ignited last week. The nearly 28-square-mile blaze in the mountains south of Albuquerque is more than halfway contained after destroying at least two dozen homes.

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