PALMDALE, Calif. (AP) — Smelling smoke, Scott Reader watched and waited for hours as a huge plume drew ever closer to his home in the rural community of Lake Hughes in northern Los Angeles County.
It didn't take much for him to decide when it was time to get out.
"We saw flames and that was it," Reader said. "That's all we needed to see."
He packed some belongings into a trailer, loaded up the dogs, and he and his girlfriend drove to a Red Cross shelter in nearby Palmdale on Saturday.
They were there Monday along with dozens of other people who fled a vast wildfire that chewed through more than 46 square miles of old chaparral and threatened two hamlets at the edge of Angeles National Forest.
By Monday evening, the roughly 2,800 people forced to flee 700 homes were allowed to return to the rural communities of Lake Hughes and Elizabeth Lake 45 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.
One small community of Antelope Acres remained under a mandatory evacuation order, said Los Angeles County sheriff's Lt. Dave Coleman. Fire inspectors were traveling from building to building to ensure the homes were safe to enter and to take stock of any damage, said Ronald Ashdale, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
Firefighters had doubled containment of the blaze to 40 percent by Monday, as cool, moist air moved in to replace torrid weather. The flames moved out of rugged mountains and onto the floor of the high desert Antelope Valley, where the fire became easier to fight.
"The fire moved into an area where vegetation changed from real dense to real sparse," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Matt Corelli said.
The fire continued to push toward the northwest, an area that had not burned since the 1930s, Ashdale said. On Monday it jumped the dozer line set up by firefighters, pushing the area of containment out by another 5 acres.
Full containment was expected in a week, and officials expressed guarded optimism Monday afternoon.
With only widely scattered homes in the area, firefighters were able to work more on attacking flames than on structure protection, Corelli said.
At least six houses have been destroyed by the fire, and 15 more were damaged.
During the weekend, flames were fanned by unpredictable winds that pushed hotspots in different directions.
Reader, 44, said he was astounded to see how fast-flying embers blew from a ridge a half-mile away and across Lake Hughes to suddenly ignite brush near his backyard.
"It just jumped right over the lake, no problem," he said.
Reader received word that his house survived, but others weren't so fortunate.
Monique Hernandez, 37, also saw the fire jump the lake and decided to flee the mountaintop home she and her parents rented in March.
The family put their dog, photos and clothes into a van and sped down a mile-long dirt road. An hour later, they learned their home had burned.
"I saw it on the news," Hernandez said at the Red Cross shelter in Palmdale with her 3-year-old daughter, Angelique. "It was all gone. It was down to ashes."
Hernandez said she had to go back to see it for herself.
"I have no idea what I'm going to do," she said, holding back tears.
About 2,100 firefighters took on the flames, aided by water-dropping helicopters and airplanes unleashing loads of retardant across the flanks of the fire.
The cause of the fire was under investigation. Three firefighters had minor injuries, but no one else was hurt.
Despite the improved situation, evacuations remained in effect while firefighters checked communities for hazards such as hotspots, downed power lines, damaged gas lines and propane tanks.
Smoke from the Southern California wildfire and from Nevada fires hung over Las Vegas, where Clark County officials advised Monday that it could bother sensitive people such as those with respiratory conditions.
In the West, two major wildfires were burning in northern New Mexico, and weather conditions were not expected to be helpful to firefighters.
The Tres Lagunas fire north of Pecos in Santa Fe National Forest had grown to 12 1/2 square miles, causing smoke to spread across much of the region.
It previously prompted the evacuation of about 140 houses, mostly summer residences, but no structures had been burned.
Drier and windier weather was moving in, marking a change from Sunday, said interagency fire management team spokeswoman Denise Ottaviano.
"It's going to be challenging," she said
Firefighters were working to protect a group of homes in Holy Ghost Canyon and prevent the fire from spreading east, where it could endanger a river watershed that supplies Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, the Thompson Ridge fire near Jemez Springs remained at nearly 3 square miles. Forty to 50 houses were evacuated late last week.
A light gray haze blanketed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east of Santa Fe and a thicker haze nearly obscured a view from Santa Fe of the Jemez Mountains to the west.
In Evergreen, Colo., about 30 miles west of Denver, a fire forced the evacuation of an undetermined number of homes.
Rain was helping crews battling Alaska wildfires, including a major blaze in the state's interior.
Fire managers say the wetter, cooler weather was giving crews a reprieve at many of the 40 active wildfires in the state.
There have been 150 fires in Alaska this year, with more than 66 square miles burned.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Christopher Weber and Tami Abdollah in Los Angeles, Paul Davenport in Phoenix, and Rachel D'Oro in Anchorage.