CROWSNEST PASS, Alta. (CP) - Crews attempting to beat back a stubborn forest fire in a southwest Alberta mountain pass are in a battle where hard-fought victories can be obliterated by a gust of wind or rise in temperature.

"Some days we lose some on this fire and some days we gain," fire information officer Marv Doran said Wednesday of the Lost Creek blaze that has consumed 205 square kilometres.

"We have to just kind of play it day by day and hour by hour."

Doran said the situation gets critical late each afternoon when the wind picks up strength and causes flareups.

"At that time we have to be very vigilant to make sure that it's not hopping over and keep on top of it."

The terrain in the Crowsnest Pass is tricky and the fire is difficult to reach in spots, but weather conditions remain the biggest challenge for firefighters. Occasional rain helps dampen the voracious flames, as do cooler temperatures, but the fire quickly heats up again when wind or warmer temperatures return.

About 1,000 people from the Crowsnest community of Blairmore were unable to return to their homes Wednesday, while at least another 1,000 from the town as well as neighbouring Hillcrest remained on one-hour alert.

"We do have fairly extreme conditions," Doran said. "However, we have made some headway and as the information comes available it's sent to the emergency operations centre for the municipal district. They make a decision on it as to whether to allow the people back in or not."

Ironically, the fire appears to have brought national attention to the scenic mountain pass that straddles the Alberta-British Columbia boundary.

"We've been trying to promote the area for 15 years and we've never had promotion like this," said Cathy Haslam of Realty World in Crowsnest Pass. She said the office has had a 25 per cent boost in calls from prospective homeowners.

"People are saying they've seen us on TV and that we're very pretty - even though we're burning."

The publicity has given the area of 6,500 another chance to promote itself as a recreational and retirement destination - something it's been struggling to do since its mines closed and the local economy took a hit.

Haslam said the Crowsnest is usually overshadowed by tourist hot spots such as Banff and Jasper.

"If we put all of our advertising dollars together, we couldn't have paid for this kind of publicity," she said. "Up until the fire, we were like a well-kept secret."

Most of the calls are from people in Western Canada looking for affordable weekend getaways, although some inquiries have come from as far away as Ontario.

Mayor John Irwin calls the exposure the silver lining to the dark smoke that has hung over the area since July 23.

"I guess it's one of those old adages that . . . the only bad press is none at all," he said.

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/13/2003 20:08 EST