Milder weather helps fire crews in upper Rockies

July 5, 2012 - 8:35 PM
Western Wildfires

Dr. Ted Stefani digs through to salvage items from the remains of his home in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood of Colorado Springs, Colo., Thursday, July 5, 2012. The house was destroyed in the Waldo Canyon fire, which has burned about 28 square miles and has damaged or destroyed almost 350 homes since it started June 23. (AP Photo/The Colorado Springs Gazette, Jerilee Bennett)

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) โ€” Firefighters took advantage of a lull in searing heat and shifting winds in Wyoming and Montana on Thursday to attack wildfires that have charred thousands of acres and forced dozens of residents to flee their homes.

Temperatures in the mid-80s, higher humidity and calm winds aided crews battling the 95-square-mile Oil Creek fire just northwest of Newcastle, a town of about 3,500 near northeast Wyoming's Black Hills. About 25 families were evacuated from Newcastle's outskirts. The fire was 40 percent contained.

In southeast Wyoming, heavy air power, including four large air tankers, helped increase containment of the 16-square-mile Squirrel Creek fire to 51 percent. The tankers included two military C130s from a fleet that was reduced to seven Monday when one crashed 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.

In southeastern Montana, more than 1,300 personnel took advantage of calm winds and temperatures in the 80s to make headway on five blazes that officials are now managing as one 470-square-mile wildfire complex so they can quickly deploy resources among the blazes.

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

High winds and triple-digit temperatures in central and southeastern Montana fanned the blazes earlier this week.

The 382-square-mile Ash Creek fire was about 50 percent contained. Some ranches and homes near Ashland remained threatened, and Highway 212 between Ashland and Broadus was still closed.

At the 67-square-mile Taylor Creek fire near Ft. Howes, managers worked to connect fire lines dug by local residents. The complex also included the Powerline fire, about 30 miles from Hysham. Firefighters contained a late Wednesday run of 400 acres on that blaze.

In Colorado, crews expect to fully contain the state's most destructive wildfire by Friday. Colorado Springs officials lifted evacuation orders for 126 more homes at the 28-square-mile Waldo Canyon fire, which 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.

Authorities said Thursday that they know where the fire started but did not disclose the location. The cause was under investigation.

In Utah, rain and cooler temperatures helped crews hold fire lines on the 8,200-acre Shingle fire 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, the 160-square-mile Clay Springs fire east of Delta. The blaze was 64 percent contained.

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 to return to Montana.

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