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Evacuations lifted as crews gain upper hand on California's Powerhouse Fire

Nick Ut / AP

A plane drops fire retardant on the Powerhouse Fire in California on Monday. After a weekend in which the blaze raged, grew and caused thousands of evacuations, it was 60 percent contained Tuesday.

Moderating winds, cooler temperatures and higher humidity have helped Southern California firefighters gain the upper hand over the 32,000-acre Powerhouse Fire, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman said Tuesday.

The fire, which in previous days had torn through dry, thick bush and caused thousands of evacuations, was 60 percent contained Tuesday morning, and all evacuation orders were being lifted, fire information officer Ed Gililland said.

Some 2,000 firefighters on the scene were making “pretty good progress” Monday and early Tuesday and continuing water drops from helicopters, he said.

Fire crews in California are reporting that the massive wildfire that has engulfed a large swath of the southern part of the state is 60 percent contained, and have lifted some evacuation orders. But several hundred homes are still threatened. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

“We’re certainly not home free and we don’t want to indicate that this fire is out or under control, but it’s certainly looking a lot better than it did,” Gililland said. “Every day is better.”

The fire’s front lines were moving away from homes and were concentrated mostly in areas with little or no population, but steep, rugged terrain continued to pose a problem.

Nearly 300 buildings, including some homes and a large solar-power plant, were still under “moderate” threat, Gilliland said, and many roads remained closed.

“There’s still a lot of firefighting left to do,” he said. “Some of the brush is so old and it’s so intertwined, and there’s still a lot of fire on the slopes. … But the active fire fronts are some distance from the homes.”

About 3,000 people in the fire’s path had been evacuated by late Monday. On Tuesday, orders to leave had been replaced by “soft closures,” meaning evacuees were free to return if they wanted, Gililland said, adding, “The decision is that we are perfectly safe in allowing folks back into their homes.”

The American Red Cross was keeping a shelter in Palmdale open to provide “food, water and comfort” and was standing by in case additional help was needed, the group said on its website.

Tuesday’s breakthrough came after a brutal weekend in which the fire burst into thickets of extremely dry brush and grew rapidly as winds gusted up to 40 mph, posing ever more headaches for fire crews and homeowners. 

As of Tuesday morning, the fire had damaged 15 homes, destroying six of them, and three firefighters had been injured.

The Powerhouse Fire, which has burned since Thursday, is so named because it started near the Powerhouse No. 1 hydroelectric plant in the Angeles National Forest north of Santa Clarita.

Gililland said forecasts indicated the weather would continue to improve, with cooler temperatures and lower winds helping firefighters.

“It’s been a tough battle,” he said.

Meanwhile, smaller fires in New Mexico continue to rage. Firefighters warned Monday night that one of them could gain strength during the windy, dry afternoon as it consumed pine trees in its path. 

That blaze, the Thompson Ridge fire, could spread to Native American archaeological sites in the Valles Caldera National Preserve, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Dana Howlett said. 

The sites include six volcanic mounds important to the Pueblo of Zia indigenous group. 

Reuters contributed to this report.