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JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — A wildfire surged past a natural firebreak and toward an expensive subdivision outside the resort community of Jackson Thursday, but strong winds driving the flames calmed before the fire reached any homes.

Fire spokesman Ron Steffens said the wind had died down by 7 p.m. and no homes had been lost. He said fire crews would stay near the homes through the night to monitor the situation.

And he warned that weather conditions are not expected to improve Friday, meaning the fire would likely begin another run once afternoon winds picked up again.

Earlier in the afternoon, firefighters pulled back as the wind pushed the blaze past a natural firebreak and made forward positions too dangerous.

“My gut feeling is that we are probably in a very serious situation at this time,” fire incident commander Joe Carvelho said at a mid-afternoon news conference held in a pasture dwarfed by a towering column of gray smoke.

Strong winds pushed embers up to a half-mile ahead of the fire, and closer to the homes that had been evacuated a day earlier.

Hopes that a nameless ridge — with its fewer trees between the fire and the homes — would slow the fire’s advance were dashed as flames climbed to its top. The peak of the ridge is only a half-mile from the homes, most valued at half-a-million dollars and up.

Freshly bulldozed fire lines near the edges of the northward-marching fire’s front were abandoned as the flames jumped ahead. Fire managers, who had hoped to eventually connect the lines and halt the fire, scrambled to plot new strategy. Air tankers dropping retardant were all that were attacking the fire’s leading edge.

“This fire is as hazardous and burning as aggressively as any other large fire that I have been on,” said Carvelho, who has fought fires from Alaska to Florida.

One firefighter was airlifted off the mountain after his asthma condition was aggravated but no other injuries were reported.

About 400 people were either evacuated or barred from reaching their homes when the blaze made a major advance Wednesday. Many were allowed to return once Fall Creek Road, the major access route, was reopened later that night.

Smoke was thicker Thursday in Jackson Hole, a 40-mile long valley surrounded by three mountain ranges and gateway to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. The Tetons, which lie north of the blaze, were hazy.

A team of investigators arrived to determine the cause of the fire, which began Sunday in a camping area. The probe was being treated as a criminal investigation because of speculation that the fire was started by people, Bridger-Teton National Forest spokesman Dave Cunningham said, but no evidence has been examined because of fire danger.

The resort town of Jackson, with the Snake River between it and the fire, was not threatened, authorities said, but hundreds of homes on the west side of the Jackson Hole valley were in the fire’s path.

Authorities went door-to-door Wednesday afternoon, barking orders to leave.

Some residents were given just a few minutes to grab valuables. Homeowners were allowed to return home for three hours Thursday morning.

“Basically, if it’s something that can be bought, like furniture, forget it. That’s why you pay insurance,” said Russell Rainey, a 12-year resident of one subdivision who hauled out a pickup load of family pictures, clothing and other personal items.

“It was hard to breathe up there,” Rainey said. “My eyes were watering and my nose was itching.”

Margaret Augustat cried as she put covered wall hangings into a sport utility vehicle while others loaded furniture in a pickup.

“This is just so hard. It’s not a matter of materialism. It’s just having to leave and not knowing,” she said.

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Residents had been warned for days to expect a quick evacuation, but the fire’s rapid shift caught many off guard Wednesday.

The

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threatened homes include one owned by celebrity attorney Gerry Spence. His house was protected somewhat in the middle of a clearing.

“It gives you a chance to pause and realize there are things out of your control,” he said.

The Forest Service has marshaled about 1,000 firefighters, 12 helicopters and 12 air tankers to fight the blaze that has burned some 3,500 acres since it began in a camping area Sunday. Twelve new teams of 20 were put on the lines Thursday morning.

Fifty percent of the fire was contained, but the most troublesome spots were close the homes, Carvelho said.

“It’s not controlled, and it’s not out,” he said.

Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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