CROWSNEST PASS, Alta. (CP) - About 1,000 evacuees from one of the southwest Alberta communities threatened by a massive forest fire were told Wednesday they will be allowed to return to their homes.

Officials decided the threat to Hillcrest, Alta., from the rampaging Lost Creek forest fire in the Crowsnest Pass has diminished. "The evacuation has been lifted," Crowsnest Pass Mayor John Irwin said.

The ruling, effective at 1 p.m. MT, affects about half the people that were driven from their homes by the persistent blaze, which fire officials said had grown to 190 square kilometres.

"The decision was taken in consultation with the . . . forestry fire-fighting forces and our own fire brigades on the ground," Irwin said.

"We do not believe the fire could advance into the community at this time."

Hillcrest was evacuated on Saturday when flames burned to within 500 metres of the community. Irwin said some hot spots remain, but all that is left in the area between the blaze and town has already burned, so there is no timber left for the fire to consume.

Changes in the fire's behaviour, meanwhile, allowed crews to attack the main body of the fire directly instead of being limited to the rear and the flanks.

"When the fire is up in the trees and rolling, it's very difficult to get in front of it," said fire information officer Patrick Loewen. "What it's done in the last few days has allowed us to get right at the head of the fire and concentrate our efforts there with dozer lines and backburning and other techniques to rob it of fuel."

Firefighters turned their attention to the head of the blaze, attacking it as it burned within a few kilometres of the town of Blairmore, Alta.

"It is within a couple, three, kilometres of Blairmore," said Loewen. "We're doing some really good work to ensure it doesn't make it into that community."

Although the fire remained out of control, about 850 firefighters and support workers backed up by eight air tankers were able to keep it from growing beyond 190 square kilometres.

Crews have been getting some help from a sprinkling of rain and higher humidity, said Loewen. Similar conditions were expected to persist over the next few days.

"We were able to do some mapping this morning and there's been no appreciable growth," Loewen said. "We're getting a little bit of help from Mother Nature."

Hillcrest evacuees will be able to go back home through one controlled access point, said Irwin.

"Only actual residents of Hillcrest will be allowed back," he said. "Members of the general public will not."

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/6/2003 17:00 EST