photo - This 3D rendering shows the boundaries of the Buffalo Mountain Fire and surrounding neighborhoods. The red line indicates the approximate fire perimeter. Image courtesy Summit County.
This 3D rendering shows the boundaries of the Buffalo Mountain Fire and surrounding neighborhoods. The red line indicates the approximate fire perimeter. Image courtesy Summit County. 

iSUMMIT COUNTY - Summit County residents were spared the ordeal of thousands in southwest Colorado as firefighters kept the Buffalo fire under control.

The fire, which started Tuesday in the White River National Forest west of Silverthorne, had only grown to 91 acres and was 20 percent contained Wednesday night, officials said.

"It feels great to hear that they're making good progress," said Wildernest resident Marge Schweri, who left her home because of smoke even though she had not been ordered to evacuate. "I'm almost worried that I'm not concerned enough, since the fire officials said that fires have a mind of their own."

Hotshot teams were deployed Wednesday into the beetle-kill timber, which officials deemed too dangerous to enter Tuesday.

"Tuesday, we felt safe attacking the fire indirectly from here where the fire break is, not there," Summit County Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino said, pointing to a dense stand of lodgepole pine during a media tour of the fuel break near the Wildernest community. "Twenty or 30 years ago, we'd go immediately right into the fire, but look how many firefighters we killed every year doing that."

Other crews stomped out hot spots, sparks and embers near the Mesa Cortina and Wildernest neighborhoods, while three helicopters dropped hundreds of gallons of water on flames and flare-ups.

Those helicopters cost over $8,000 an hour, but they're "well worth their weight in gold based on the value of the homes up here," Berino said.

Lightning has been ruled out as a cause of the Buffalo fire, meaning it was human-caused, Berino said.

Evacuations of 1,384 homes in the Mesa Cortina and Wildernest communities have not been lifted, although residents were able to temporarily return to their homes to gather belongings before 10 a.m. and between 7 and 10 p.m.

Authorities want to be conservative in lifting evacuations in case spot fires or embers burst into larger flames, said Summit County Fire & EMS spokesman Steve Lipsher.

"Of course we don't want to keep people out of their homes, but we want to make sure that everything is out before letting people back in and taking on the risk of having to re-evacuate," he said.

Janet White, who was ordered to evacuate her Wildernest home, returned Wednesday morning to grab extra belongings. The smoke was dense, she said.

"I felt like I smoked a pack of cigarettes," she said. "I've never seen anything like this, but I'm not surprised that this happened with the winter we had. We've been expecting it for years."

Looking at the weather forecast, Jackson is wary. Though the National Weather Service in Denver predicted chances of showers each day through Sunday, there is also a chance for dry lightning, which could spark another fire.

"That could complicate things," he said.

The same forecast had the more than 1,000 firefighters battling the state's largest blaze on edge as well.

The 416 fire burning north of Durango since June 1 has grown to more than 27,000 acres, forced residents to evacuate nearly 2,000 homes and has cost $10 million to fight.

The blaze about 13 miles north of Durango is in the Four Corners region where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet and which is in the middle of a large swath of extreme drought.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said the rapid response from emergency crews has helped prevent a repeat of devastating wildfires in 2012 and 2013. Years ago, he said fire departments were hesitant to commit resources to fighting every fire, and launching a coordinated response to a major blaze could take up to two days.

Hickenlooper said better coordination has cut down on delays, and the state reimburses local departments for initial response costs, in an attempt to control a blaze before it can spread.

"We learned a lot from the disasters, the fires we had in 2012 and 2013," Hickenlooper told reporters, referring to the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires that devastated Colorado Springs.

Hickenlooper also made a plea for people not to cancel plans to visit Durango.

"If you want to help the people of Durango and La Plata County, go down and visit," the governor said at a news conference at the Capitol, noting that small businesses pay a price when tourism is disrupted.

The fire, the largest of eight burning across the state, was about 15 percent contained Wednesday morning. There have been no deaths or reports of injuries, and no homes or structures have been damaged or destroyed so far. The cause has not been determined.

Colorado Politics' Joey Bunch and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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