Wind Threatens to Hamper Montana Firefighting Efforts; 700 Homes Evacuated

Fire crews worried about high winds Tuesday as they fought to protect this resort town from a wildfire that already has prompted evacuation of nearly 700 homes, a fire commander said.

More than 22 square miles of forest has been blackened since the blaze started Friday about 50 miles northeast of Missoula.

A return of higher wind could push the fire eastward toward the town, said Glen McNitt, incident commander for the fire.

"It has the potential to burn into Seeley Lake and the surrounding area," McNitt said. "Wind is our biggest concern right now."

The National Weather Service forecast westerly wind of 8 to 12 mph Tuesday with gusts to 25 mph, accompanied by falling humidity.

"We're trying to build lines ahead of the fire because the town is in the way and people's homes," said Ricardo Zuniga, a fire information officer.

So far, one house has been destroyed and another damaged. A commercial building and seven outbuildings were also damaged.

The 675 homes evacuated are outside Seeley Lake, which has not been evacuated. Seeley Lake, an unincorporated town, is estimated at 5,000 people in the summer, with about a fifth that number in winter.

Linda Weaver and her husband were among a handful of evacuees camping at a highway rest stop Monday. They cut short their vacation in Washington state when they heard about the fire and returned to pack up their Seeley Lake home.

"We'll go back when they tell us we can go back," she said. "I hope it's soon."

More than a dozen large wildfires were active in Montana.

Lower temperatures, higher humidity and favorable wind in California on Tuesday were helping crews battling a blaze in Santa Barbara that started more than a month ago.

Evacuation orders remained in effect for a handful of areas, though southwesterly wind was moving the fire into wilderness and away from populated areas, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Marian Kadota said.

The wildfire, in mountainous Los Padres National Forest about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, has covered about 69,000 acres, roughly 108 square miles. It was 68 percent contained but was so big it might not be fully contained for another month.

Elsewhere, a fire in a mostly uninhabited area of Michigan's Upper Peninsula had grown to 15,400 acres, or more than 22 square miles. No injuries were reported and no structures had been damaged, although some evacuations had been ordered and authorities warned about 125 residents Monday at a community meeting west of town they could be next.

Authorities decided to set up a 5-mile fire line along one side of the blaze after another difficult night for firefighters.

"They ate smoke all night," said Ann Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.