SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Hundreds of people forced from their southern Utah homes near the country’s largest active wildfire headed home Friday and prepared for a subdued Fourth of July celebration after nearly two weeks of fear and uncertainty.
The fire cut a wide swathe of destruction, blackening more than 92 square miles (238 square kilometers), but left other parts of the mountainous area green and untouched.
“The damage just takes your breath away,” said Julie Saemisch, who was at her granddaughter’s fifth grade graduation when she was told she could not return to her home in the ski resort town of Brian Head and was evacuated to a campground a few miles (kilometers) away.
Her home was saved, but more than a dozen others caught in the fire’s path as it radiated out from Brian Head were destroyed. Started June 17 by someone burning weeds, the fire is now about 20 percent contained and is one of several fires burning in western U.S. states.
In Arizona, crews on Friday reopened a major route through the small town of Mayer that barely escaped destruction when a massive wildfire threatened the area about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Phoenix.
Authorities were also expected to lift more evacuations after that blaze forced thousands from their homes, campgrounds and summer camps ahead of the long Fourth of July holiday weekend, though some people could be prohibited from returning for a few more days.
Friday also marks the four-year anniversary of a wildfire that killed 19 elite firefighters near the Arizona town of Yarnell, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) southwest of the current blaze.
In New Mexico, a lightning-sparked fire co grew to nearly 11 square miles (28 square kilometers) on Friday and threatened at least one railroad bridge. The fire is burning grass and brush on private land south of Albuquerque and was about 40 percent contained.
Firefighters were also battling wildfires in California and Washington state.
Near the Utah fire zone, Brian Head’s annual Independence Day celebrations will be quieter, more thankful and fireworks-free, said Mark Wilder, a spokesman for the Brian Head Resort.
Hundreds of people still evacuated from a lakeside community near Brian Head were being allowed home for about 30 minutes at a time to gather belongings, said Denise Dastrup with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.
Resident Mari Murdock, who built a cabin near Panguitch Lake with her husband 20 years ago, said firefighters stood guard for days putting down flames that threatened her home and dozens of others nearby.
“It could have been catastrophic,” she said. “The fear lasted a long time, seems like forever, because we didn’t know.”
Murdock feared that local wildlife suffered during their fire, including recently born fawns probably unable to escape the flames.
Pamela Rutledge of Palm Desert, California, said was briefly allowed to return to her family’s Utah cabin to toss out food that had rotted in the refrigerator while the power was out and retrieve a few irreplaceable photos.
Her home looks down at a once-green canyon now covered with blackened ash and torched trees.
“When you get up there and you see how close it was, that really humbles you,” she said.
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