WOODFORDS, Calif. (AP) _ Some 300 people evacuated from this hamlet in the Sierra Nevadas were back in their homes today as authorities investigated a wildfire that caused at least $5 million in damage and destroyed 24 homes.

More than 1,500 firefighters declared the wind-whipped fire under control late Sunday. Residents were allowed to return to the blackened community earlier in the day.

Authorities believe the 6,600-acre blaze, which started Wednesday, was accidental, said Nate Leising of the U.S. Forest Service. The rocky terrain has hampered the investigation, he said.

Federal and state damage-assessment teams combed through the area, and Alpine County Sheriff Larry Kuhl said they put damage to homes at $5 million, not including lost contents.

''And there are things that can't be counted,'' Kuhl said. ''People come here for the asthetic values, for fishing and all that.''

The fire broke out in a steep canyon west of the Nevada border and left a fourth of the estimated 100 families living in Woodfords homeless.

Some residents complained that the Forest Service response to the fire was too slow and that volunteers who showed up at the scene immediately after the fire began should not have been dismissed.

Kuhl disagreed, saying, ''I don't see anything that they could have done differently, even looking back and second-guessing.''

Winds that gusted to 40 mph combined with the steep countryside to whip the fire into a blaze difficult to reach with water, he said.

Three firefighters suffered minor injuries.

The cost of fighting the fire had reached almost $2 million by Sunday, said National Forest Service fire chief John Russell.