Image: Bathtub at destroyed home
Gary Kazanjian  /  AP
A bathtub can be made out among the debris of a home destroyed in Briceburg, Calif., by the fire near Yosemite National Park.
updated 7/31/2008 12:26:27 PM ET 2008-07-31T16:26:27

Residents are returning home Thursday after being forced to flee a wildfire raging outside Yosemite National Park, but some are wondering what they'll find when they get there.

David Oppenheim, a longtime backcountry guide in Yosemite, has been staying at a motel since he and his wife evacuated their Mariposa home Saturday, taking along their two horses, three llamas, five cats and a dog.

"I'm just hoping to go back to my life at this point," said a weary Oppenheim. "But when they do let us back into our house, we're not even sure we'll have water because we're so remote all the wells run on electricity. We have no idea what we'll do with the animals if we don't even have water."

Hundreds of residents were allowed back to their homes Wednesday as firefighters announced they had made critical gains in fighting a wildfire charging across the hillsides outside the park.

Roughly two-thirds of evacuees were allowed to return home in an area officials said had been spared by the blaze. The evacuation order remained in effect for some 100 homes close to the still-smoldering fire northwest of Midpines, a small town about a dozen miles from the protected wilderness.

40 percent contained
By Wednesday evening, the 50-square-mile blaze sparked Friday by a target shooter was 40 percent contained after reducing 21 homes to ash.

The fire has forced dozens of park employees to flee and has left one of California's most popular destinations shrouded in smoke at the height of the tourist season.

DNC Parks and Resorts at Yosemite, which manages restaurants and lodging in the park, said only about 4 percent of all overnight guests have asked for refunds since Saturday, when the transmission line that fed power to Yosemite was destroyed in the fire.

Since then, most hotels, stores and restaurants in the park have been operating on generators.

"We're not waiting for power to be restored, we're doing everything in our power to get our guest services back up to speed," said Kenny Karst, a spokesman for the concessionaire. "We may not have electricity for the lights, but now some people can take hot showers."

In all, more than 2,000 blazes have scorched about 1,700 square miles around California — mostly on national forest land — this year.

Resort gets lucky
In Montana, meanwhile, strong winds pushed a wildfire to within a half-mile of a ski hill outside the town of Red Lodge, before a late-day shift in weather spared the resort.

Authorities asked Red Lodge Mountain Resort employees to evacuate and brought in 30 fire engines from the surrounding area to protect nearby houses.

By early evening Wednesday, as winds began to slacken, the fire had grown to 7,539 acres, or almost 12 square miles.

"We're hoping maybe this was our big scare and now we'll be able to get a handle on it," said Red Lodge Fire Chief Tom Kuntz. "The weather is expected to be better the next couple of days."

An evacuation order remained in force for 90 homes below the base of the ski mountain. Residents of an additional 200 homes have been told to be prepared to leave.

Since the fire began Saturday, crews have kept the fire largely confined to a canyon that runs out of the Beartooth Mountains along the West Fork of Rock Creek.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Tourists smoked out, not kept out

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