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Residents return as California wildfire tamed, New Mexico blaze surges as fires challenge west

New Mexico Wildfire-1.jpg

This image provided by Inci Web shows a plume of smoke in the Chuska Mountains near Naschitti, N.M. on Sunday, June 15, 2014. Residents of a Navajo community near the New Mexico-Arizona border prepared for evacuations Monday as strong winds fanned the flames of a wildfire burning in the Chuska Mountains. Fire officials were conducting reconnaissance missions to get a better handle on the fire's size, but Navajo Nation officials said more than 3 square miles have been charred since the fire was first reported Friday. (AP Photo/Inciweb)The Associated Press

Residents were told they could return to some 1,000 mountain homes on the southern end of California's Sierra Nevada range as firefighters stunted the growth of a smoky wildfire, one of several wildland blazes making problems for western states.

All evacuation orders were lifted Monday night after firefighters had the blaze near Lake Isabella west of Bakersfield 50 percent contained, U.S. Forest Service officials said.

The blaze has destroyed three houses, damaged another and forced hundreds to flee their homes. At least two of the burned houses appeared to be abandoned, the U.S. Forest Service said in a statement.

One other home was damaged by the fire, which charred more than 4 square miles of trees and brush in and around Sequoia National Forest and also threatened power lines and communications facilities.

On Tuesday, firefighters will look to build lines all the way around the blaze, and helicopter water drops and expected calm winds overnight could have them off to a strong start.

"We're hoping we're going to have some good news in the morning," fire spokeswoman Cheryl Chipman said. "It'll depend on how much they can get done and what the wind does."

Meanwhile on the New Mexico-Arizona border, residents of two Native American communities were forced to leave their homes as strong winds fanned the flames of a wildfire burning in the Chuska Mountains.

The fire ballooned to more than 17 square miles, forcing Navajo Nation police to issue an evacuation order for parts of Naschitti and nearby Sheep Springs. About 400 people live in the area, and fire managers said more evacuations could be possible.

The fire was burning unchecked across dry pinon, juniper and brush. Gusts grounded all air support and hampered other efforts to directly attack the fast-moving flames.

"We just can't afford to put anybody in front of this thing," said fire spokeswoman Arlene Perea. "That's the main thing: protecting life."

Authorities did sweeps of sheep herding camps in the hills and evacuated some people. The fire has since burned through those areas, Perea said Monday.

As tribal police worked to notify residents whose homes are scattered among the hills, radio stations aired alerts and Naschitti chapter employees and others spread word of the approaching fire through social media. The chapter house and the community's schools were evacuated Monday afternoon.

In northern Arizona, a 12-acre wildfire that broke out in Oak Creek Canyon was 25 percent contained. The fire that broke out Monday afternoon was just north of a blaze that charred 31 square miles last month in the scenic canyon between Sedona and Flagstaff.

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