By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Firefighters in northern Idaho's panhandle gained ground on Wednesday against a timber-fed blaze that has destroyed several homes of a scenic resort area where hundreds of residents remained under evacuation orders.
The so-called Cape Horn fire erupted on Sunday in pine and fir forests surrounding the shores of a mountain lake lined with log mansions and luxury condominiums and raged largely unchecked for two days at the peak of the area's tourist season.
By Wednesday, however, firefighters had managed to enclose about 35 percent of the blaze's perimeter. Overnight infrared mapping of the fire zone showed that 1,380 acres had burned, far less than the 2,000 acres estimated earlier, U.S. Forest Service fire dispatcher Doug Nace said.
At the height of the fire this week, flames engulfed six upscale homes near the tiny town of Bayview, on the southwest shore of Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho's largest, and forced some 600 residents to flee as ground crews and water-dropping helicopters mounted an all-out attack on the blaze.
Nace said strong winds that had been forecast to return to the region on Tuesday failed to materialize, giving firefighters an edge as they worked to build containment lines and conduct burnout operations.
"The winds have subsided, we have a more stable weather pattern and it's making a big, big difference," he said.
Pre-evacuation advisories were lifted for businesses and other property owners in Bayview and, provided firefighters continued to make progress as expected, residents ordered from their homes could be permitted to return as early as Thursday, Nace said.
The blaze was among nearly three dozen large fires burning in the Western United States, the bulk of them in Alaska, which have consumed almost 1 million acres in recent days, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
U.S. fire officials said a flurry of wildfires in the Pacific Northwest and California broke out weeks earlier than usual this year, stoked by high winds, drought-parched vegetation and higher-than-usual temperatures.
"We're about a month ahead of where we typically would be, if you can even say what's typical anymore," said Jennifer Smith, a spokeswoman for the Boise fire center.
Wildfires have charred nearly 4 million acres so far this year, compared with fewer than 1 million acres during the same period of 2014, the agency reported.
The latest national fire outlook indicates the warming trend will likely continue for much of the U.S. West through October.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Sandra Maler)