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Firefighters save homes in Oregon's Columbia Gorge, allowing some residents to return

Helicopter drops water on the Rowena fire in Oregon amid high winds and dry conditions on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. The Rowena fire began in brush Tuesday night. (AP Photo/The Oregonian, Stuart Tomlinson)

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Helicopter drops water on the Rowena fire in Oregon amid high winds and dry conditions on Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2014. The Rowena fire began in brush Tuesday night. (AP Photo/The Oregonian, Stuart Tomlinson)

Some of the hundreds of people forced to flee a wind-driven wildfire in Oregon's Columbia Gorge east of Portland were allowed to return Thursday and were happy to find their houses intact, even where flames had come as close as 30 feet.

"It is a huge relief," said Connie Thomasian, a real estate agent who moved to the little community of Rowena overlooking the Columbia River with her husband, Craig, for the world-class wind surfing. "We still have our house. It's a relief that everybody in our neighbourhood has their house."

The Rowena fire started Tuesday evening in brush, and by Thursday, it had grown to 4.1 square miles northwest of The Dalles. The cause of the fire about 75 miles east of Portland remains under investigation.

Winds gusted to 30 mph Thursday, and more than 140 homes remained under the most serious evacuation notice, fire spokesman Dave Wells said Thursday night. A nearby area around The Dalles Country Club was under a less-serious evacuation alert.

More than 430 firefighters battled the fire and helped protect homes Thursday, with some of them being asked to work a shift and a half, Wells said.

Thomasian and her husband watched from a nearby park Wednesday with neighbours as helicopters dropped water around the house and firefighters put out hot spots on the steep hillside. At one point, there was "a burst of flame" and it looked like the battle had been lost, she said on Thursday.

"It was frightful," she said. "I just disconnected myself from it, and thought, 'I'm putting this in the hands of the firefighters and luck.' "

Returning to the house Thursday, she found a charred softball, but the ranch house and a storage shed were untouched. Trees and grass were blackened within 30 feet of the house.

Old Highway 30 remained closed in the fire area.

In northern Idaho, five structures have been destroyed and 160 threatened by a wildfire burning on 64 square miles of mostly grass on the east side of the Snake River across from Oregon and Washington. Big Cougar Fire spokesman Tom Rhodes said it's unclear if the destroyed structures are homes or outbuildings in the remote area accessible only by boat. Residents have been told to evacuate.

In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday asked President Barack Obama to declare parts of eastern Washington a major disaster area because of wildfires that have destroyed more than 300 homes this year. A declaration would provide federal assistance to help families, business owners and local governments recover from the wildfires.

In California, a man was charged Thursday with starting last year's massive Rim fire, which burned hundreds of square miles of Yosemite National Park and the Stanislaus National Forest.

A grand jury in Groveland, California, returned a four-count indictment against Keith Matthew Emerald, 32, alleging he started a fire Aug. 17, 2013, and it spread beyond his control. Federal prosecutors said temporary fire restrictions in place at the time prohibited fires.

Emerald, from Columbia in the Sierra Nevada foothills, is also charged with lying to a federal agent by saying he did not set the fire. A call to his attorney, federal public defender Janet Bateman, was not immediately returned.

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Associated Press writer Scott Smith in Fresno, California, contributed to this report.

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