DENVER
03/23/2011 09:54 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Indian Gulch Fire Evacuees Allowed Back In Home, But Risks Remain

GOLDEN, Colo. (AP) -- Fire crews have been able to prevent a wildfire burning in the foothills west of Denver from growing, despite winds gusting up to 75 mph.

From one ridge, a dozen plumes of smoke rose and mixed into one from the blaze burning on nearly 2 square miles of steep, wooded terrain near Golden on Wednesday morning. Flames erupted as individual trees ignited.

The fire was 20 to 25 percent contained.

Strong winds had grounded some firefighting air crews Tuesday, but they were expected to diminish Wednesday afternoon, the National Weather Service said. That would open the door to using helicopters to once again drop water on the fire.

"With the weather predicted today, it should be more favorable," said fire spokesman Derrek Hartman.

About 290 firefighters were assigned to the blaze, and more were on the way, said Jefferson County sheriff's spokeswoman Jacki Kelley.

Two single-engine air tankers and three helicopters also were available.

Residents of about 17 homes that had been evacuated were allowed to return Tuesday. Kelley said they were evacuated to keep roads cleared for fire trucks, not because they were in immediate danger from the fire.

"Hopefully we'll be able to keep them in their homes and not have to evacuate," she said.

People who live in foothill neighborhoods west of Golden, a Denver suburb, should remain on standby if the blaze flares up, officials said.

Tankers dropped fire retardant and helicopters made water drops Tuesday before they were grounded by the wind. The fire has been burning dry grass, brush and trees on steep slopes since Sunday.

Meteorologists say wildfires are common this time of year, when strong wind persists and vegetation is dry. Compounding that was a severe drought, which is affecting most of Colorado east of the Rocky Mountains - including the Denver metropolitan area - the U.S. Drought Monitor said.

In Longmont northwest of Denver, a small grass fire that started Wednesday morning just east of U.S. Highway 36 grew to 7 acres before it was contained.

At least five Colorado counties have enacted fire bans while the strong winds and low humidity last.

Around the country, the National Interagency Fire Center reported 12 large fires burning Wednesday in eight states.

In Colorado, the lower foothills and high plains on the eastern side of the Rockies have had little moisture since August, said Tim Mathewson, a fire meteorologist for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center, which coordinates federal, state and local firefighting.

"It hasn't been just the last couple weeks. This is part of an extended dry period," he said.

Officials suspect the wildfire is human-caused, despite recent fire bans in many parts of the state. The weather service has issued fire-weather watches for eastern Colorado through Thursday morning.

No injuries were reported, and no structures have burned. County sheriff's spokesman Mark Techmeyer said flames moved past two homes but firefighters were able to save both.

While fires can happen any time of year, the heart of fire season in Colorado is typically May to September or October, when more aircraft for fighting fires are contracted.