By Allan Dowd

KAMLOOPS, British Columbia (Reuters) - Exhausted crews battling western Canada's worst wildfire season in decades struggled on Monday against strong winds, but some of an estimated 8,500 people evacuated were allowed to return to their homes.

Officials feared the winds would create "extreme fire activity" in three large blazes burning near Kamloops, British Columbia, but were still able to make progress controlling the wildfire burning nearest the city about 171 miles (275 kms) northeast of Vancouver.

Winds were also hampering the fight against a blaze in the Crowsnest Pass region of southwestern Alberta's Rocky Mountains has forced up to 2,000 people to leave.

No deaths have been reported because of the fires, but several dozen homes have been destroyed or damaged.

The entire province of British Columbia, about the size of Germany and France combined, was under a state of emergency as dry conditions created what officials said was the most dangerous wildfire season in a half century.

No major rainfall was forecast for at least the next several days, offering little prospect of relief.

The most troublesome blaze near Kamloops was the 20,760-acre (8,400-hectare) McLure fire to the north that forced 3,500 people to evacuate and destroyed up to 75 homes.

Buildings were gutted and burned telephone poles hung from wires but firefighters said they were able to protect many houses.

"I guess I'm a lucky one," said Wayne McGregor, one of the few residents allowed to visit his home. "It's still here.

Residents of an outlying Kamloops neighborhood were allowed home, but warned to remain on alert. Officials did not say how many people were involved, but local media estimated the evacuation on Friday at more than 3,000 people.

Officials were also watching a fire near Falkland, southeast of Kamloops, that grew to more than 3,459 acres (1,400 hectares) overnight and already has forced 1,000 to evacuate.

In adjacent Alberta, about 1,000 residents from the community of Blairmore were ordered out on Sunday. They joined the 1,000 residents from nearby Hillcrest already evacuated.

Some rain early on Sunday helped crews fighting the 44,480-acre (18,000-hectare) blaze, but wind picked up late in day, officials said.

Fire crews and Canadian military personnel were being brought in to help tired personnel.



08/04/03 18:09 ET