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Thousands head home as large wildfire calms north of L.A.

PALMDALE, Calif. Dennis Immel's neighbors, even his wife, followed official orders and fled as a huge wildfire approached his lakeside neighborhood in northern Los Angeles County.

But Immel, after stocking up on fire hoses and nozzles, remained. His house still stood on Monday as many of his neighbors returned to find theirs destroyed.

"I made the maybe foolish choice to stay and maybe fight it," said Immel, 59, at his house in Lake Hughes, one of two communities where evacuation orders were lifted for nearly 3,000 people Monday as the fire that consumed 50 square miles was 60 percent contained.

Immel, who had evacuated the home in the past, said he used the fire hoses and a garden hose to keep the flames back, while four of the five houses around him went up in flames.

"All my neighbors' homes were on fire, and I had spot fires all over my property," Immel said. "The heat was such that my window panes are all cracked."

Fire officials repeatedly warned people like Immel to evacuate not only for their own safety but for that of firefighters who may have to save them, and Immel's wife left after arguing with him over whether or not to leave.

He later managed to call her.

"As soon as she heard me say, 'It's me,' she just started to cry," Immel said. "Then as soon as she composed herself, she goes, 'Is our house gone?' I said, 'No, our house is here."'

Cooler, moist air on Monday helped thousands of firefighters catch up with the blaze in the Angeles National Forest that had doubled in size over the weekend and spread rapidly through old, dry brush with help from gusty winds and soaring temperatures.

"What a difference a day makes," said LA County Deputy Chief David Richardson.

Better conditions were expected to continue overnight and into Tuesday.

"We're supposed to have a good marine layer into the morning, we're hoping for it not too heat up too early," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Ed Gililland.

Immel's friend and neighbor, Gregg Johnson, evacuated on Saturday with his wife and 12-year-old son after watching the fire race down and surround their mountaintop home.

"At that point, you know, the deal was done," Johnson said Monday.

"Of course I was holding out hope," he said, "(that) maybe the people who told me my house had burned down were wrong."

Johnson's was one of six houses that were destroyed. Nine more were damaged.

Residents in Lake Hughes and Lake Elizabeth were allowed to return to some 700 homes Monday in the rural communities 45 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

About 275 homes remained under threat, but evacuation orders had been canceled. Still, reports CBS Los Angeles station KCBS-TV, the areas remained closed to non-residents.

The cause of the fire was under investigation. Three firefighters had minor injuries, but no one else was hurt.

Lake Hughes resident Joe Biviano lost his 1,750-square-foot home to the flames. He and his wife lived there 15 years.

"I was really sad, because there were a lot of memories up here," he told KCBS. "We really enjoyed living up here."

The 63-year-old Lockheed test pilot and Navy veteran evacuated with his wife Saturday night. He said he realized Sunday just how bad the fire had become, though he had no idea his house would be lost.

"I thought everything would be burned, but I'd still have my home," Biviano said. "But that wasn't the case."

Meanwhile, in northern New Mexico, two major wildfires were burning, and weather conditions there were not expected to be helpful to firefighters.

A fire north of Pecos in Santa Fe National Forest had grown to 12-1/2 square miles, causing smoke to spread across much of the region.

It had previously prompted the evacuation of about 140 houses, mostly summer residences, but no structures had been burned, though windier weather was approaching.

"It's going to be challenging," said interagency fire management team spokeswoman Denise Ottaviano.

Another fire near Jemez Springs remained at nearly 3 square miles. Forty to 50 houses were evacuated late last week.

In Evergreen, Colo., about 30 miles west of Denver, sheriff's officials made about 9,900 automated calls telling people to evacuate as gusts carried sparks a half-mile from where a fire burned an estimated 25 to 35 acres. The exact number of evacuees wasn't known because some homes receive calls to multiple numbers.

The fire was settling down Monday night and authorities said some evacuees will be able to return home.

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