BISHOP, CALIF. — Crews stayed on the offensive against major blazes around California and other Western states Sunday, a day marked by an epic fire in Utah and evacuations of hundreds of homes in Washington, as well as a helicopter crash that hurt two firefighters in Santa Barbara County.
But firefighters' efforts also yielded progress in California that permitted the return home of 75 to 100 evacuated Inyo County residents, as well as travelers who had been stranded earlier in the weekend by fires that arced across U.S. Highway 395, a key thoroughfare to resort spots in the Eastern Sierra Nevada.
The dozens of fires across the West included Utah's largest-ever wildfire, at 283,000 acres, as well as a brush fire near Wenatchee, Wash., that led to the evacuation of 250 to 270 homes.
Other Western blazes -- vindicating widespread predictions that the summer heat and parched landscapes would yield a ferocious fire season through the region -- scorched parts of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Oregon.
In Nevada, about 1,500 evacuees from Winnemucca were allowed home hours after a wildfire shut down Interstate 80, destroyed an electrical substation, delayed trains and killed livestock.
A tragic lightning-sparked blaze also struck the Great Plains. Flames raced out of a canyon in South Dakota's Black Hills, leading to the death of a homeowner who was overcome while trying retrieve personal belongings, and also destroying 27 homes and charring nine square miles.
The deaths of two Californians were also linked to the fires. Roy Rex Redmon, 68, and his wife, Mary Ann, 65, of Rowland Heights perished Saturday after smoke from one of the Utah fires obscured visibility on Interstate 15, causing a chain-reaction collision, authorities said.
In California, firefighters gained ground on the two major lightning-sparked blazes -- together known as the Inyo Complex fire -- in the Inyo National Forest.
By Sunday evening, the fires overall were about 15% contained and together had burned about 34,000 acres, authorities said.
Fire officials confirmed the loss of one home and several other structures, and said they expect to announce a higher tally today.
The California Highway Patrol said traffic was moving smoothly Sunday on Highway 395 a day after officials closed as much as 115 miles of the artery tracing the eastern spine of the Sierra.
For weekend travelers whose trips were dependent on Highway 395, Sunday was a day of comparing notes on how close they came to beating Saturday's roadway shutdown that extended at times from Bishop on the north to Pearsonville on the south.
On their way to Bishop from their home in Upland, Bob and Pat Mayhall were stuck for two hours in a long line of cars and trucks at a roadblock outside Independence, a community at the heart of the fires about 185 miles north of Los Angeles that was partly evacuated Saturday. "If we hadn't stopped for lunch, we would have made it through," Bob Mayhall lamented.
The couple pulled over and waited two hours, as others sat along the highway in lawn chairs. The Mayhalls got the last space at an RV park in Lone Pine, where they spent the night. "We were lucky," Pat Mayhall said. "We are self-contained."
For firefighters, although temperatures were in the mid-90s and breezes picked up in the afternoon, the weather "kind of turned in our favor a bit" compared to conditions that fanned the fast-moving fire Friday and Saturday, said John Louth, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
"The humidity has gone up," he said, adding that crews spent the day putting in fire lines. Earlier in the weekend, he said, "the fire was just running and gobbling up countryside."
The army of firefighters at the blazes grew to 863, nearly double the force from a day earlier, as reinforcements poured into the area. They were supported by eight helicopters and nine air-tankers, dropping water and fire retardant.
"At this point, we're starting to make excellent progress on containment of the fire," Louth said. "The bulk of the resources has arrived."
In his 20 years working in the Inyo National Forest, Louth said he has never seen such dry conditions. Before the fire started Friday, he said he was walking outside and "the pine needles were crunching under me rather than bending and giving way to my weight."
Fire officials said today's weather could spell trouble, with possible thunderstorms and erratic wind conditions forecast.
"We always know that, a heartbeat away, that fire can change from a tame fire to a roaring juggernaut coming down the hill at 60 mph," said Jim Wilkins, an Inyo National Forest spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
One firefighter suffered a slight injury Sunday, bringing the total hurt battling the blaze to four, authorities said.
The first three, who work for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, were part of a two-engine team forced to take shelter after being overrun by flames Saturday afternoon near Independence.