HELENA, Mont. – Authorities in Montana ordered the evacuation of nearly 600 homes after a fire burning on a mountain ridge suddenly changed direction and threatened a popular destination for boaters, anglers and hikers.
The fire near Seeley Lake is one of 19 large fires in Montana and 52 large fires burning across the U.S. West on Tuesday, including one that shut down a road into Yosemite National Park, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
In Montana, the wind shifted Monday night and blew a 48-square-mile (124-square-kilometer) fire within a half-mile of homes and buildings, which led the Missoula County Sheriff's Office to order evacuations.
Martha McManus and Gary Ikerd were among a handful of residents who stayed the night at a shelter in Missoula. They told Montana Public Radio that they believe the fire will only strengthen the close-knit community.
"Things happen and sometimes it's an accident and you don't really know where to go or what to do," said McManus, 69. "It always works out for the best, doesn't it?"
Seeley Lake is nestled in a valley between the Mission Mountains and the Bob Marshall Wilderness along a highway that leads to Glacier National Park. Some 1,660 people live year-round in about 750 homes in and around the town, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
An additional 511 residences are seasonal or second homes or are for rent or sale.
The evacuation zone includes the downtown area and homes east of the lake. The post office has closed, and the start of school has been delayed from Wednesday until next week.
The lightning-caused fire has been burning since late July, and the town's namesake lake has been closed twice this summer to boaters and swimmers so that firefighting aircraft can safely and load water to fight the nearby fire.
Each night, cooling temperatures allow smoke to roll down the hillside and create hazardous air quality, which led environmental officials to advise residents earlier this month to find somewhere else to sleep for the foreseeable future.
Smoke from the fires has degraded the air quality across the Northwest, leading to alerts from the Oregon coast to central Montana.
Hot and dry conditions led the National Weather Service to issue fire warnings in central California, Nevada, Utah, Washington, Idaho and Montana on Tuesday.
In southern Oregon near the California border, authorities ordered the evacuation of six homes in the rural community of Joe Bar on Tuesday after lightning-ignited fires.
Several thousand people also remained evacuated from their homes near the coastal town of Brookings, though some residents were being allowed back as firefighters gained a toehold on the 184-square-mile (477-square-kilometer) blaze burning nearby.
In California, a small fire forced officials to close the southern roadway leading into Yosemite National Park on Tuesday and order the evacuation of Sugar Pine, a small community of homes and vacation rentals.
Other entryways into Yosemite were open.