CROWSNEST PASS, Alta. (CP) - The remaining people driven from their homes by a tenacious fire in southwestern Alberta were allowed to return on Friday.

"That effects about 1,200 people," said wildfire information officer Brydon Ward. "Basically, everybody's back into their homes in the whole valley, but some folks are on one-hour alert."

Ward said the fire, which had crept within three kilometres of Blairmore, was still officially out of control, but officials were optimistic it would be held by the weekend.

"Yesterday it did not have significant growth, but there is still smouldering surface fire in some areas," said Ward.

About 800 people from Hillcrest, another community in the Crowsnest Pass, were allowed to go home on Wednesday. Fire crews had not built up enough fire guards to fully protect Blairmore at that time, so those residents were still out of their homes.

The one-hour evacuation alert has also been lifted for other area communities such as Pincher Creek.

The Blairmore residents had been out of their homes for five days.

"They're very appreciative today they've been allowed back into their homes," said Ward. "The response from the locals has been overwhelming in terms of thank-you notes and what people are doing for us. It's just been great."

Fire officials have said relatively high humidity during the last several days allowed firefighters to attack the fire's front directly.

The Lost Creek fire has consumed about 190 square kilometres. About 850 fire personnel were fighting it.

Calmer, damper weather was aiding firefighting efforts across Alberta on Friday, said fire information officer Terry Cunha.

At mid-week there were 31 fires in the province outside the national parks. By Friday, there were 23, with the Lost Creek fire the only one out of control.

"Parts of northern Alberta are receiving some moisture, which is definitely benefiting us," Cunha said.

The situation was also improving in British Columbia, where almost half of 6,500 forest fire evacuees got the thumb's up to go home Friday.

Parks Canada planned a limited opening of Highway 93 south of the Trans-Canada Highway, said fire information officer Shelley Humphries.

Although the Verendrye Creek fire remains active and out of control on both sides of the road, Humphries said the blaze is usually quieter in the morning.

"It's the time of the day when the fire's kind of lying down," she said.

However, drivers are warned the road is likely to be thick with smoke. As well, there will be low-flying helicopters, crews with heavy equipment, control points and wildlife.

Stopping to watch the fire will be forbidden.

"There will be one place people can stop and that will be Kootenay Park Lodge," Humphries said.

Firefighters were also getting a handle on two fires in Jasper National Park by Friday.

Calm, humid weather and sprinklings of rain had allowed crews to battle the Syncline fire in the southeast section of the park to a standstill, said spokeswoman Geri Syroteuk.

"They're in a holding pattern."

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/8/2003 18:13 EST