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Wildfire Threats Tailing Off

Oregon firefighters were hoping for rain Monday as the cooler, moist weather helped them make progress on wildfires around the state.

At the massive Florence fire, firefighters continued working on a 200-mile containment line starting at the California border and stretching to Agness.

A fire in east-central Wyoming was partially surrounded by a fireline Sunday, as crews in Nebraska fully contained portions of the same fire burning across the state line.

The Tollman fire was burning about 4,500 acres in Wyoming, 18 miles northeast of Lusk in the scenic Hat Creek Breaks. Another 500 acres were burning on the Nebraska side.

Parts of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado could reopen to visitors by the end of the week, nearly two weeks after lightning sparked a wildfire that blazed near the park's best-known archaeological sites.

The 2,601-acre fire was fully contained Sunday evening.

Fire managers expected to begin releasing crews from the fire on Monday. About 40 people were to stay on and help with the mop up, fire information officer Traci Bowen said.

Meanwhile, 57 people, including about 40 firefighters, remained at work on a 4,413-acre fire near Estes Park on Sunday. The fire was fully contained July 26. That blaze led to three deaths, including two men piloting an air tanker and a helicopter pilot.

The 240,000-acre Florence fire, located in the Siskiyou National Forest in southwestern Oregon, increased Sunday by more than 40,000 acres from burnouts alone, said Tom Valluzzi, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. Burnouts are fires that are intentionally set behind dirt containment lines by crews hoping to rob the main blaze of its fuel.

Elsewhere in Oregon, the Timbered Rock blaze, at 25,950 acres scorched, was 75 percent contained on Monday. The Monument fire near Unity and the Malheur Complex fire near Prairie City were both 100 percent contained over the weekend, said Johnetta Wormley, spokeswoman for the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland.

"The moisture that moved in this weekend was a contributor to controlling and containing these fires as well as holding the line on the Florence and Sour Biscuit fires," Wormley said.

Near O'Brien, Oregon, Susie and Jim Wood used binoculars Sunday to watch from their backyard as fire crews used drip torches and pistol flares to ignite a ridge across from their family ranch.

Firefighters said they would conduct burns down the ridge to the river that runs behind the Woods' house and then burn another ridge on the other side of the property.

The family has been cutting trees and clearing brush around the ranch for five days and had a sprinkler on the roof, said Susie Wood.

"They said they felt that with the efforts we've been doing, they think we can save our place," she said. "I hope so — you've got to have a positive attitude."

The ridge fire licked at the base of trunks, sometimes creeping up the sides in short spurts and other times torching the entire tree in seconds. The fire created its own wind that erupted in loud whooshes, like a jet taking off, every time a tree ignited.

Flames jumped around, sometimes crisping one side of a tree and leaving the other untouched, but they did not cross a foot-wide dirt line dug that morning to control the flames.

On the opposite ridge, crews used a new blasting technology to carve out a one- to two-mile containment line for the next day's burnout. Tubes of sausage-shaped explosives were laid down and then detonated from a distance, creating a huge explosion that sent clouds of gray smoke above the tree line.

"It was multiple explosions and it was pretty loud," said Bill Evans, 84, who lives two miles from the blast site. "I thought I'd go out there on my bicycle, but they said no way."

A total of 40 miles have been scorched with drip torches and flare pistols by hand crews working along the fire's eastern flank, where it threatens about 17,000 Illinois Valley residents.

There are about eight more miles to burn before the containment line reaches the California border, where another fire team takes over responsibility, said Tom Knappenberger, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman.

The Florence Fire was still about one to two miles Sunday from the 41,000-acre Biscuit Fire and fire officials expect the two blazes to merge in the next few days.

"We expect them to and it's OK if they do," said Mike Ferris, Forest Service spokesman. "We've been treating them like one fire already."

The threat to the Illinois Valley has dropped because of progress with burnouts and the cooler weather, said Ferris. A 30-minute evacuation order for 17,000 people was downgraded to a two-hour warning Saturday night, he said. That could be lowered to a 24- or 48-hour notice in the next few days.

"We're feeling pretty good about the reduced threat in these communities. It's starting to look like they have a minimal risk to them," Ferris said.