PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. – Authorities reopened a major route through an Arizona community that barely escaped destruction from a massive wildfire and were expected to allow more evacuated residents to return home.
The fire, which is about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Phoenix, triggered evacuations for thousands of residents in a half-dozen communities and came close to consuming the town of Mayer. State Route 69 reopened early Friday.
The incident commander got a big cheer at a community meeting Thursday night when he announced crews had secured lines around about 43 percent of the blaze, which has consumed about 45 square miles (116.55 sq. kilometers) of brush and forest. Still, John Pierson warned several hundred people that the fire could become more active and cause more damage.
"We're still not out of the woods yet," Pierson told those gathered in a church in Prescott Valley.
The wind-whipped flames jumped State Route 69 on Wednesday after roaring into Mayer. They consumed some homes, but somehow aircraft dropping retardant and crews on the ground kept it from destroying the entire town.
Mayer's 1,400 residents were allowed back in Thursday, but a few thousand others remained in shelters, with friends or in hotels.
Beside permanent residents, the U.S. Forest Service ordered campgrounds to empty of the thousands of people visiting for the popular Fourth of July weekend.
Authorities also called in school buses to drive 1,400 children from area summer camps run by churches, the YMCA and other groups.
The camps weren't directly threatened, but Yavapai County Supervisor Tom Thurman said officials didn't want to take risks.
"For the kids, we're just being proactive," Thurman said.
More than 800 firefighters were battling the blaze burning south of Prescott, which draws a mix of desert dwellers escaping the heat, retirees and visitors to its famed Old West-themed Whiskey Row lined with bars.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey toured the fire zone Thursday, thanking firefighters, chatting with people staying at a shelter and promising that fighting the fire was the state's No. 1 priority.
The local sheriff said he thought all hope was lost as the massive fire approached the larger town of Dewey-Humboldt.
"When that fire jumped that road and started heading to Dewey-Humboldt, we thought it was gone," Yavapai County Sheriff Mascher said. "I thought there was no stopping it."
But authorities estimated that the fire only burned a handful of homes.
"Four or five," state Forester Jeff Whitney estimated. "So far we've really dodged a bullet."
About 70 people spent Thursday night in two shelters set up at the high school and a local community college. More than 100 horses and other large animals, 80-plus dogs and more than 60 cats were also in emergency shelters, county emergency services manager Denny Foulk said.
The large crowd at the church Thursday night listened attentively as Pierson, Mascher and other officials assessed the state of the battle and assured people their homes were being protected from vandals.
One woman worried about a 27-year-old donkey she left behind, asking how it would survive without care. Mascher said his deputies would arrange for the animal to be retrieved.
Most, though, just wanted to know when they could go home.
Mascher said many of those who fled Dewey-Humboldt could likely go home as soon as Friday, but for many who live in more rugged areas on the fire's north and west flanks, it would likely be another several days.
The Arizona blaze grew Thursday but fire officials said two straight days of lower wind speeds gave them a leg up.
Higher humidity also helped firefighters despite a temporary halt to aircraft operations Wednesday because of an unauthorized drone flying in the area. Mascher said deputies believe they've identified the drone operator, but he didn't say if the person had been arrested.
At a shelter in Prescott Valley on Thursday, Dewey-Humboldt David Eastlack, his girlfriend and their three daughters were looking at another night away from home but happy they were safe.
The family fled in their SUV Wednesday with clothes and family pictures and headed for the evacuation center at a high school in the next town up the highway.
"We left everything else," Eastlack said. "If it got destroyed in the fire, it's just stuff. But we took the memories."
Ducey, Arizona's governor, noted that Friday marks the four-year anniversary of a wildfire that killed 19 elite firefighters in Yarnell, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) southwest of Prescott Valley.
He praised "the elite status of those young men that we lost. And I want to take that same type of spirit out as we fight this fire over the Fourth of July holiday weekend."
Firefighters on Thursday were also battling wildfires in California, New Mexico, Utah and Washington state.
Hundreds of people forced from their homes by a Utah wildfire were expected to return even as the blaze grew.
Fire managers said Thursday at 25-mph (40-kph) wind gusts expanded the wildfire near the ski resort town of Brian Head to more than 91 square miles (236 square kilometers), though firefighters boosted its containment to 15 percent. The fire was ignited by someone using a weed-burning torch.
In Southern California, a wildfire burning on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base and in the city of San Clemente was 90 percent contained. Officials there say higher humidity levels slowed the fire's pace.
Galvan reported from Phoenix. Associated Press writers Clarice Silber and Josh Hoffner in Phoenix and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that it may be several days before evacuees living on the fire's north and west flanks, rather than on its east and west flanks, can return home.