WEST GLACIER, Mont. – Firefighters have won the battle to stop a wildfire's advance on this gateway town to Glacier National Park (search), officials said Saturday.
Residents displaced by the fire could return to their homes possibly as early as Sunday. "This is a big turning point for us," said fire information officer Wyn Menefee.
Three days of risky backburns along the eastern front of the fire succeeded in creating a barrier 12 miles long and up to half a mile wide between the fire and the town.
"We've turned the corner," said Rod Dresbach, incident commander for Flathead County.
Although the town was considered safe, the fire was still dangerous and far from controlled.
"Caution is still warranted, but we're slightly more optimistic today than yesterday — and much more optimistic than three days ago," the deputy commander of the elite fire management team, Lynn Wilcock, said Saturday.
Fire managers began moving some of their 1,000 firefighters and equipment to the western and northern flanks of the blaze Saturday, as other crew members mopped up along the burnout.
The fire has burned more than 23,000 acres, starting in the Flathead National Forest (search) before burning into the park's western edge.
Park Service spokesman Roger Scott said the west side of Glacier would be reopened in phases. When evacuation orders are lifted, he said, headquarters personnel and workers at the Apgar Village commercial center (search) will return first, and then workers at businesses in the park.
Dresbach said officials would monitor weather and fire conditions Saturday before lifting the evacuation orders.
"We're going to let the fire cook and keep an eye on it the next 24 hours," Dresbach said.
The blaze was one of three major fires in or along the west edge of Glacier National Park.
In Idaho, where more than 2,200 firefighters battled at least seven fires Saturday, the supervisor of the Salmon-Challis National Forest (search) asked to be reassigned following the deaths of two smoke jumpers in a wildfire in the forest July 22.
George Matejko said the deaths of the two Idaho men, both in their early 20s — combined with a spring fire that destroyed his home in Salmon and killed his pet dogs — prompted his decision to move.
"I want very much to continue to contribute to the mission of the Forest Service," Matejko wrote in a letter to his employees. "I feel I have much to offer the agency, yet I feel I cannot continue as forest supervisor," he said.
The preliminary report on the deaths of the smoke jumpers said they had been on the ground for several hours after being dropped by helicopter to clear brush for a landing zone.
When the fire intensified they radioed for help, but the smoke was so dense a rescue helicopter couldn't land. Their bodies were found later. An investigation is continuing, and the fire that killed the men was contained Thursday after burning 5,600 acres.
In Washington state, helicopters delivered 100 elite firefighters to the front lines of a 76,386-acre fire burning in the Pasayten Wilderness (search), near the Canadian border in north-central Washington.
The crews will sleep inside the wilderness area for the next few days, and supplies will be airdropped to them, fire spokeswoman Christy Covington said.