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Man who faced Colo. fire with shovel, well water can relax as neighbors return to their homes

Bob Arnold breathed a sigh of relief Friday morning when the ominous glow finally disappeared from the ridge behind his house. He spent four days and nights defending his home with a shovel and dirt in the shadow of a wildfire that has destroyed at least 169 homes.

He also got help from his neighbor's hand-operated well.

"This right here has been a big help," he said as he filled a white 5-gallon bucket with water. "I've been using it to pour on hot spots, and also for drinking."

Arnold's neighbors began returning home Friday, four days after the fire erupted in the rugged foothills west of Boulder and prompted most residents to evacuate. About 2,000 people were cleared to return, but another 1,000 or so were still kept away because of how close their homes are to the 10-square-mile fire that's still burning.

"Good to see you," Arnold said as he gave a neighbor a hug.

Crews managed Friday to build more containment lines around 56 percent of the fire, up from an estimated 30 percent earlier in the day. Firefighters contended with winds gusting up to 30 mph during the day.

By evening, the winds had slowed to 5 to 10 mph, with some gusts of 20 mph. The National Weather Service in Boulder said the winds would stay low into Saturday.

Jim Thomas, the leader of the incident response team, said that will make it easier for crews to attack the flames.

"We're hoping, within the next three to five days, that we'll be close to 100 percent containment," Thomas said.

Arnold spent the week throwing dirt onto hot spots and driving about a quarter mile down a dirt road to his neighbor's well, each time cranking the handle on the pump to fill his bucket. He watched as air tankers and helicopters dropped flame retardant and water dozens of times to try to stop the flames whipping through his neighborhood.

Flames scorched the ridges behind his house in the shadow of a hill that remains denuded of trees.

The fire consumed at least four houses in Arnold's neighborhood before heading east toward Boulder, although fears of the flames reaching the city five miles away have eased.

Fire crept to within 6 inches of the neighbor's house before firefighters managed to stop it.

"Those firefighters must have spent about two hours protecting that house," Arnold said as he sat on a porch, relaxing after four days of hard work. "They're the heroes."

The fire destroyed the neighbor's trampoline, leaving bits of fabric hanging from the springs, and a black scar marked where the fire reached a shed in his neighbor's yard.

"See that," Arnold said pointing to a scorched area. "That used to be a beautiful meadow."

People allowed back to their homes Friday didn't have power or phone lines and were greeted by the smell of rotting food left in refrigerators. Authorities warned residents to keep an eye on the changing weather and be ready to evacuate again.

Tom Bethke, a geologist, didn't think it was worth returning.

"There's no power, no phone, no gas, no nothin'. Even staying up there is futile," Bethke said at a YMCA fire shelter.

Susan DiPrima, however, returned to her two-story log house with a spring in her step.

"It's here! It's still here!" the retiree said as she entered her house with an Associated Press reporter. Less than half a mile from her home below Sugarloaf Mountain, the ground was scorched and trees were blackened and ashy.

She wandered outside and greeted returning neighbors as the wind began picking up and a puff of smoke floated over a ridge about two miles away. DiPrima acknowledged that she still didn't feel safe.

After experiencing the joy of having homes to return to, some area residents were mulling the reality of dealing with the aftermath. D. Greenwald planned to tell officials about her security concerns during a meeting Friday organized by the Red Cross. She said saw only one patrol car and only one checkpoint when she returned to her house.

"We want entrances to the mountain to be supervised," Greenwald said.

About 1,000 firefighters from 20 states were battling the blaze dubbed the Fourmile Canyon fire, which has cost $4 million to fight so far. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries such as a broken finger, but no one has been seriously hurt by the fire.

Firefighters believe the blaze was human-caused, but exactly how it started remained under investigation. Authorities were looking at whether a vehicle may have crashed into a propane tank.

The loss of homes surpassed that of the 2002 Hayman fire in southern Colorado, which destroyed 133 homes and 466 outbuildings.

Insurers had no immediate estimate on damages as rubble smoldered in mountain neighborhoods filled with a mix of million-dollar homes and more modest log homes and ranches. Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, said the blaze affected mostly primary residences, not vacation cabins, so the homes burned are more likely to be insured.

The fire has destroyed at least $76.9 million worth of property, according to a Boulder Daily Camera database of the buildings confirmed burned and their valuations listed in Boulder County property records. The range of types of residences burned was wide, running from two homes valued at nearly $2 million each to single-wide mobile homes and buildings dating to the late 1800s.

Arnold said he refused to evacuate because he had to flee another wildfire that swept through the area in 1989, destroying 44 homes. He returned to find the stairway leading to his deck scorched.

"That fire took out most of the trees," he said. "I know I can put out a grass fire, but if it gets into the trees, there's no way."

He packed up his car, just in case.

"I was ready to go if I felt I was in mortal danger, but it never got to that," he said.

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Associated Press writers Ben Neary and Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.