updated 7/18/2007 11:51:55 AM ET 2007-07-18T15:51:55

Crews battling blazes in the forests of Northern California caught a break from mother nature on Wednesday, but steep and rugged terrain made progress slow-going against a massive fire to the south.

Most residents in Santa Barbara County who had been advised to leave their homes when flames appeared to be closing in were able to return late Tuesday after crews set backfires to keep the huge blaze at bay.

"People are happy to go back home, and the fire in that area is starting to blow out," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Eric Neitzel.

Officials cautioned, however, that weather conditions were volatile and the terrain in the mountains of the Santa Ynez Valley was tough, leaving the potential for increased fire growth.

"We're trying to pinch the head down," said Rick Todd, a battalion chief with the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. "It could jump the ridgeline, but we're working to keep it back and we're monitoring Santa Ana winds."

The blaze, burning since July 4, has grown to 28,000 acres, or nearly 44 square miles.

More than 2,000 firefighters fought the flames, which chewed through parts of Los Padres National Forest and the San Rafael Wilderness. Twenty aircraft and three dozen bulldozers also helped.

"The problem is it's a wilderness fire. There's no access," said Mike Ferris, a spokesman for the National Incident Management Organization, which is overseeing firefighting efforts.

Meanwhile in Northern California, officials said improving weather were aiding firefighters near the Oregon border, where flames had threatened more than 300 homes in and around Happy Camp. The fire in the Klamath National Forest started on July 10 and had burned more than 13 square miles by Wednesday morning.

An overnight drizzle helped firefighters in their efforts to contain the fire, which was about 15 percent surrounded.

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