By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE (Reuters) - Crews battling an Alaska wildfire that has burned nearly 130 square miles of forest took advantage of rain and cooler weather on Tuesday to dramatically slow the spread of the flames and allow residents of two threatened communities to return home.
The so-called Stuart Creek 2 Fire broke out on June 19 and quickly became the most serious of more than 90 active Alaska blazes, marching toward the communities of Two Rivers and Pleasant Valley between Fairbanks and the Chena River State Recreation Area.
Authorities issued an evacuation order for 600 residents this week and said 750 homes were in the path of the flames, along with other structures. Several top-ranked Iditarod sled-dog racers who live in the area were forced to move their animals to a shelter set up at a Fairbanks fairgrounds.
But overnight rain and cooler temperatures allowed crews to make significant progress in building containment lines along the southwest and northern edges of the blaze, according to InciWeb, the inter-agency fire information website run by the U.S. Forest Service.
Fire managers said they had achieved 15 percent containment of the Stuart Creek 2 as of Tuesday morning, up from 5 percent on Monday, and evacuation orders were lifted for most residents.
The fire, which officials say has cost an estimated $5 million in resources so far, was one of dozens burning across the United States during what experts say could be one of the worst years on record.
In Nevada, a fire burning since July 1 through the Spring Mountains National Recreational Area about 35 miles northwest of Las Vegas had consumed nearly 20,000 acres by Tuesday morning. It was still only 15 percent contained, said Brandon Hampton, spokesman for the Great Basin Incident Management Team.
More than 800 personnel have been marshaled to date to combat the fire, as well as nine helicopters and 44 fire engines, an effort costing $4.84 million, Hampton said.
The affected area includes about 500 residents and nearly as many homes and buildings, all of which have been evacuated, Hampton said.
The "Carpenter 1" fire, named after the canyon where it started, has been called the nation's top-priority wildfire by federal officials because of the threat to residents, the rocky, mountainous terrain that makes firefighting efforts more difficult and the amount of resources that are now available after other fires in the region were contained.
In California, crews have contained 15 percent of the Chariot fire in San Diego County. That blaze has blackened more than 4,500 acres and destroyed eight structures. Four firefighters have been treated for minor injuries.
(Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage, Marty Graham in San Diego, Timothy Pratt in Las Vegas and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb. Editing by Andre Grenon)