Image: A chimney of a home destroyed by the Fourmile Canyon fire
Mark Leffingwell  /  Reuters
A chimney is all that remains standing of a home destroyed by the fire outside Boulder, Colo.
updated 9/10/2010 10:45:53 PM ET 2010-09-11T02:45:53

Fire crews held a wildfire outside of Boulder at bay Friday, allowing some 2,000 evacuees to return home with a warning to be prepared to flee again.

Winds are expected to pick up again later Friday, and residents were advised to keep an eye on the weather, specifically strong winds that were expected to develop later in the day. Without power or phones, officials would have a hard time warning anyone who stayed if the fire threatened their neighborhood again. An area where at least 169 homes have burned is still off limits.

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Evacuees have been out of their homes for four days, but Tom Bechkey, a geologist, didn't think it was worth returning.

"There's no power, no phone, no gas, no nothin'. Even staying up there is futile," Bechkey said at the YMCA fire shelter, where about a dozen evacuees watched the morning fire briefing on television.

Susan DiPrima returned to her three-story log house overlooking the city with a spring in her step.

"It's here! It's still here!" the retiree said with elation as she entered her house with an Associated Press reporter. Less than half a mile from her home below Sugarloaf Mountain, the ground was scorched and trees were blackened and ashy. She had been told earlier that her home had survived.

Looking at the damage through binoculars, DiPrima marveled, "Oh God, you can see the fire. I didn't know it got so close. Holy cow! We are so lucky."

Firefighters had worried strong overnight winds could fan the 6,385-acre blaze, and officials put 9,000 residents on alert for possible evacuations. On Friday they had dug containment lines around 56 percent of the fire, up from about 30 percent earlier in the day.

Authorities hope the fire can be fully contained in the next three to five days.

Jim Thomas, the head of the fire management team, said he was somewhat confident there was no threat to Boulder.

"Our optimism is much better right now," he said.

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About 950 firefighters from 20 states were battling the blaze, which has cost $4 million to fight so far. Three firefighters suffered minor injuries such as a broken finger, but no one has been seriously hurt by the blaze.

Dubbed the Fourmile Canyon fire, the fire erupted Monday and quickly left smoking rubble in mountain neighborhoods filled with a mix of million-dollar homes and modest ranches. Slopes of charred trees created landscapes resembling a barren winter with gray ash instead of snow.

Other parts of central and eastern Colorado also remained under a red flag warning Friday, meaning conditions were ripe for fire.

The cause of the fire, which has destroyed more homes than any other blaze in Colorado history, remained under investigation. Authorities were looking at whether a vehicle crashed into a propane tank and set it off.

Slideshow: Colorado battles destructive wildfire (on this page)

About 3,500 people have been out of their homes since Monday, many frustrated by a lack of information about what was happening behind fire lines. Some got around roadblocks by hiking and biking in.

Because of high winds Thursday, the city of Boulder told west-side residents to prepare to leave if the fire moved into town. From tony mansions to the north to a college sprawl near the University of Colorado to the south, some residents watered lawns, as well as their roofs, and packed cars with possessions. Others assembled on a smoky mountain overlook after dark, waiting to see if the distant fire glow seen earlier in the week would reappear. It didn't.

Caitlin Kolibas, 22, a college senior who lives in the University Hill neighborhood, said her parents in New Jersey were "trying to get me a little more concerned." But the university held classes as usual.

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Boulder resident Lisa Carmichael loaded her pickup with a precious keepsake: Her grandfather's rocking chair.

"I lived through the Malibu fire, where the fire jumped over the Pacific Coast Highway and burned houses on the sand," Carmichael said. "So I know that with this wind, if the fire department says to take it seriously, you should take it seriously."

The loss of homes surpassed that of the 2002 Hayman fire in southern Colorado, which destroyed 133 homes and 466 outbuildings.

Nationwide, about 2.6 million acres have burned this summer, about 50 percent less than the 10-year average, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Extreme weather wreaks havoc in Texas, Colorado

  1. Transcript of: Extreme weather wreaks havoc in Texas, Colorado

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (New Orleans): Now back here in this country, Texas Governor Rick Perry has issued a disaster declaration for 40 separate counties in Texas battered by Tropical Storm Hermine . And this was a rare sight last night in a US metropolitan area. Four tornadoes in and around Dallas , Texas , all of them spawned by this same vicious storm system, knocked down walls, tore off roofs, overturned trucks, mostly in low-lying industrial outskirts. Only minor injuries reported.

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (New Orleans): Nasty conditions today for the teams fighting those wildfires around Boulder , Colorado . So far the fire, fed by high winds, has consumed at least 169 homes, more than any other wildfire in the history of that state. Possibility of wind gusts up to 60 miles an hour have made it too dangerous to allow folks to go back home.

Photos: Colorado battles destructive wildfire

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  1. Fire fighters from Rosewood, North Dakota remove wood and debris from around a home in area of the Fourmile Canyon fire in Boulder, Colorado on September 9, 2010. The fire has destroyed over 100 homes and structures since Monday. (Mark Leffingwell / Pool via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An old BMW motorcycle sits next to the road in front of a home that burned to the ground in Boulder, Colo on Thursday. (Mark Leffingwell / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Jeff Vescuso wipes the sweat from his face while cleaning brush from around a friend's house in the Boulder Heights neighborhood in Boulder, Colo. that was open to residents but later closed as winds picked up on Thursday. (Matt McClain / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A helicopter fills up with water at Wonderland Lake in the city of Boulder, Colorado on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010. Winds expected to reach 60 mph Thursday are forcing authorities to call off plans for residents to return to their homes after they fled a wildfire that has destroyed at least 169 houses near Boulder. (Cliff Grassmick / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Residents evacuated due to the wildfire near Boulder, Colo., talk about the ordeal before a community meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 8. Dozens of homes have been destroyed. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A slurry bomber drops a load of retardant Wednesday on the fire zone near Boulder. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A home lies in ashes on Wednesday in the foothills near Boulder. (John Moore / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The wildfire outside of Boulder, Colo. spreads on Tuesday Sept. 7, to some 7,000 acres after starting just a day earlier. (Matt McClain / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Firefighters Tim O'Connor, left, and Scott Porter syphon water from a creek to fill their 1,000 gallon fire engine while fighting the Boulder-area fire on Tuesday. (Mark Leffingwell / The Boulder Daily Camera) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. These buses were destroyed when the fire passed through the tourist town of Gold HIll, Colo., on Tuesday. At one point the smoke plume from the fire could be seen in Wyoming, 90 miles to the north. (Eric Peter Abramson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A slurry bomber drops a load of fire suppressant near a threatened home outside Boulder on Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, at least 53 homes had been destroyed. (Mark Leffingwell / The Boulder Daily Camera) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Julian Eagleheart and Judy Frey watch coverage of the fire Monday at a Colorado University building that was turned into a shelter. Both are residents of the mountains west of Boulder and evacuated due to the fire. (Paul Aiken / The Boulder Daily Camera) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Boulder County Sheriff's deputies stop people from driving Monday up a canyon road towards the fire. (Paul Aiken / The Boulder Daily Camera) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Fire charges down toward the tourist town Gold Hill in the foothills outside Boulder on Monday. Most of the town was saved. (Greg Cortopassi / for The Boulder Daily Camera) Back to slideshow navigation
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