CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Firefighters battling enormous wildfires up and down the Rocky Mountain region were hopeful that predicted severe thunderstorms might drop buckets of rain and help their hard work of scraping lines of defense across rugged landscapes.
They remained wary of the possibility Thursday that storm cells too small and feeble to dump much rain could make their work tougher, not easier.
"If it brings moisture, it's a good thing. If it doesn't, it can bring conditions that aren't favorable including high winds again and potential for lighting strikes," said Mary Bean, firefighter spokeswoman at a vast fire perilously close to Newcastle, a town of about 3,500 not far from the Black Hills in northeast Wyoming.
About 25 families remained evacuated from the outskirts of Newcastle since the Oil Creek fire flared up Tuesday night. The fire had burned 95 square miles of grass, sage, juniper and ponderosa pine just northwest of town.
For a time, the fire evacuated 425 people from an area that included Osage, population 200 and 10 miles up the road from Newcastle. Firefighters made major progress on Independence Day and those people were allowed to return.
Firefighters fended off flames as close as a mile and a half from Newcastle. As of Thursday, only a barn had burned and nobody was hurt or missing, Bean said.
In southeast Wyoming, firefighters hoped to allow more people to return to dozens of evacuated summer cabins near the Colorado line in Medicine Bow National Forest.
"We really knocked it for a change, instead of us getting whacked," said Larry Helmerick, spokesman at the nearly 16-square-mile Squirrel Creek fire.
Heavy air power, including four large air tankers, helped increase containment of the fire above 50 percent for the first time. The tankers included two military C130s from a fleet that was reduced to seven Monday when one crashed in the Black Hills.
The crash killed four of the six North Carolina Air National Guard crew members.
Firefighters also reported progress on a 145-square-mile fire surrounding Laramie Peak about 100 miles northwest of Cheyenne. The Arapaho fire had a wide-reaching effect despite being remote: Winds from the northwest blew thick smoke into Cheyenne and Denver on Wednesday.
The air cleared somewhat Thursday but a smoky haze remained.
The region's biggest fire had burned almost 400 square miles of ranchland in southeast Montana. The Ash Creek fire continued to threaten some ranches and homes near Ashland, Mont., but firefighters hoped to get rain on a total of five fires in the area.
The National Weather Service predicted severe weather from southwest Colorado to the plains of eastern Wyoming and Montana, with a chance of thunderstorms elsewhere.
Heavy rain was possible through the weekend. One forecaster, Tom Renwick, suggested to the Durango Herald (http://bit.ly/M7ZgRY) that it could signal a shift to daily monsoons that would break a dry spell that began last winter.
Heavy rain isn't such a good thing if it washes too quickly from mountainsides denuded by fire, flooding gullies and choking streams with silt. Forest officials already were talking about restoring vegetation at the Waldo Canyon fire, which last week raced down a mountainside and damaged or destroyed close to 350 homes on the edge of Colorado Springs.
Crews expected to have the Waldo Canyon fire fully contained by Friday, two days earlier than expected.
Associated Press writers Matt Gouras in Helena, Mont.; Paul Foy in Salt Lake City; and Colleen Slevin in Denver contributed to this report.