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More evacuations lifted as crews battle Duchesne wildfire

FRUITLAND, Duchesne County — Nearly a week after an encroaching wildfire forced them to leave their foster dog ranch and find several animals a new place to stay, Doc and Ashley Hodges returned home Sunday with two of their four-legged family members.

The Hodges, who had been camping at a Red Cross shelter in Duchesne with their Labrador retrievers Reba and Len, left a sign outside their Fruitland house that read, "Evacuated — Please save our home."

"It was great to see that it was here," Ashley Hodges said Sunday, letting out a sigh of relief. "The dogs have a place to come back to."

The Hodges were among several families who live east and north of the Dollar Ridge Fire and were allowed to return home Sunday. But fire managers warned the homeowners that they should prepare to leave again if the fire's behavior changes.

Over the weekend, afternoon rain showers played to firefighters' advantage. By Sunday night, crews had contained 35 percent of the fire's perimeter. But strong winds threaten the progress they have made in battling the blaze near Strawberry Reservoir.

"Rain is always good on the fire," said fire information officer Bobbi Filbert. The outlook was positive, she said, as crews focused their efforts on the Soldier Creek area north of the reservoir. Cloudy skies and light rain over the weekend helped slow the fire's growth on its most active western flank.

As of Sunday, the fire had consumed some 49,789 acres, or about 77 square miles. It began July 1, torching about 90 homes at last count and forcing the evacuation of more than 1,100. Authorities believe people somehow caused the blaze but haven't determined exactly how it began.

Ken Wallace, whose home was destroyed in the fire, spent time Sunday scrolling through pictures of the house he spent 15 years building.

"It was a little paradise right on the river," he said.

His chicken coop is still standing, but his four-wheelers, boats, campers and chickens died, he said. Wallace was out of town when evacuation orders were issued and could not retrieve his belongings in time, he said.

The Duchesne County Sheriff's Office on Sunday lifted mandatory evacuations in two zones, including an area east of Lower Red Creek Road on the south side of U.S. 40 to Strawberry River Road. Homeowners in an additional stretch south of U.S 40 to Currant Creek River also were allowed to return.

An initial wave of residents went home Saturday, and ranchers also were permitted to round up and haul out cattle from an area near the fire's southern edge.

Last week, flames crossed U.S. 40, forcing the temporary closure of the road. A reduced speed limit of 35 mph remains in effect on that portion of the highway near the fire.

Fire officials are expected to hold a public briefing Monday at 7 p.m. at Duchesne High School for the community affected by the fire.

On Sunday, Best Friends Animal Society said the Hodges' dogs weren't the only pets displaced. In the course of about two days, shelters in Salt Lake City and Heber City welcomed dozens of dogs and cats and helped care for them with donations from the public.

• Crews have also have made gains in containing a southern Utah blaze. The West Valley Fire about 10 miles north of St. George remained at 46 percent containment Sunday, in part due to lower temperatures and mild winds.

"Crews remain ready for initial attack for any new fires that may start with upcoming predicted storms," fire managers said in a statement.

The fire has burned 11,785 acres and also is believed to be human caused.

• Crews also continued to battle the Willow Creek Fire off of U.S. 40 and about 20 miles southeast of Heber City, with about 96 percent containment as of Sunday. It has burned 1,311 acres.

Contributing: Tania Dean