Firefighters 'Turn a Corner' Against Arizona Blaze

Air Quality Warnings for
WATCH Air Quality Warnings for Arizona

Firefighters battling the massive wildfires raging in Arizona said today they are making progress, and the blaze, which has burned more than 400,000 acres, is now 6 percent contained.

"We don't like to say this kind of stuff, but we turned a corner," said Jerome McDonald, who is part of the incident management team. "We feel a lot more confident than we did two days ago."

Air and ground attacks have made enough progress that officials have decided to let about 8,000 evacuees in Springerville and Eager come home. In harder hit communities like Greer where homes were lost, residents will have to stay out for a at least five more days.

But the good news on progress containing the fires was tempered by warnings from health officials in New Mexico and Arizona that air quality conditions could worsen today because of smoke billowing up from the blaze.

The Wallow Fire has been burning in Arizona for two weeks and spread into New Mexico on Friday night. It has burned nearly 700 square miles, destroyed more than 30 homes and displaced almost 10,000 people.

Mark Shaffer of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality told The Associated Press that breathing in the tiny particles in the smoke clouds that have darkened the skies over parts of the two states could cause both short- and long-term health problems.

"Larger particles, you breathe in and you cough and it tends to get rid of it," Shaffer said. The problem with the microscopic particles, each about 1/28th the width of a human hair, is that they get "very, very deep into your system and are very difficult to expel."

The air quality warnings span further than the areas directly affected by the fires.

"Just because you can't see the fire doesn't mean there isn't an effect from the smoke blowing into the state," New Mexico Department of Health spokesman Chris Minnick told the AP.

That warning was enough to keep Robert Kaufman, who's been living with his family in an evacuation center for the last few days, from rushing back to his home, even though officials told him today he could return.

"The air quality is probably not good for our little one," he said.

New Mexico residents as far away as Santa Fe and Albuquerque are being cautioned, and more at-risk groups such as children, seniors, pregnant women and those with already-existing respiratory diseases are advised to take extra precautions.

Even though 3,000 firefighters have been battling the blaze, containment has been fluctuating between 5 percent and 6 percent, and their efforts have been at the mercy of the strength of the wind.

Late Saturday afternoon, residents of about 100 evacuated New Mexico home were allowed to return home. But health officials are stressing that permission to return home does not mean that there are no air quality issues.

Concern has grown in recent days that the fire could endanger two major power lines that bring electricity to West Texas from Arizona.

Lighter winds on Thursday and Friday allowed firefighters to make more progress, but winds picked up again on Saturday and high winds were expected today.

ABC News' Clayton Sandell contributed to this report.