HELENA, Mont. – The smoke pouring into a small Montana town from a nearby wildfire has gotten so bad that health officials are warning residents to leave the area, or at least find somewhere else to sleep at night when the smoke is at its worst.
Seeley Lake registered air pollution levels Thursday morning 38 times above what the World Health Organization says is safe. The hazardous air prompted the Missoula City-County Health Department to recommend for the first time ever that an entire community just leave their homes for clearer skies.
"This is a dangerous level of smoke for any living thing," said air quality specialist Sarah Coefield. "Nobody should be breathing smoke this thick."
The recommendation is not an enforceable evacuation and most people in the community of about 1,600 are staying. They won't abandon their property and choose instead to endure the stinging eyes, raspy throats and the inescapable campfire smell.
The smell is nauseating, but it's the taste of the smoke that sticks with Ted Linford, a 67-year-old resident.
"It's almost like having the aftertaste of chalk in a drink," he said. "You're done with the drink and you still feel the chalk in your throat."
The 16-square miles (41-square-kilometer) fire burning less than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from Seeley Lake was one of 38 large active wildfires across the West on Thursday, according to the National Fire Information Center. A dry summer and high temperatures are expected to extend the wildfire threat into September, and longer for places experiencing extreme drought like eastern Montana and the western Dakotas.
In the Utah town of Springville, authorities ordered people in more than 20 homes to leave Wednesday evening after extreme winds pushed a small lightning-caused fire toward the houses. Firefighters were aided by rain and they put out the fire a few hours after it started.
The fire in Montana isn't an immediate threat to Seeley Lake homes, though authorities have told residents to be prepared to leave at a moment's notice, said Missoula County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Brenda Bassett.
The popular tourist town is nestled between the Mission Mountains and the Bob Marshall Wilderness in a scenic valley that traps the smoke that rolls down the hillside at night from the fire.
The smoke starts to disperse mid-morning, when the sun warms the valley floor and the warm air rises, but it returns most nights when the temperature drops again. There's no foreseeable end to the cycle, leading Missoula health officials to issue their recommendation to leave, Coefield said.
"We understand that a lot of people may not like what we're saying, but we also feel that it's the most accurate message we can give," she said.
The smoke and fire have already driven many of the tourists away, and the town's namesake lake is closed so that firefighting aircraft can safely scoop water. That's going to hurt local businesses in a town where visitors can double the population in the summer.
"It's dead," Linford said. "Nobody's here. It's really odd."
Bonnie Philliber, co-owner and general manager of the Double Arrow Lodge, said she is frustrated because she believes the threats from the smoke and fire have been overblown. It was sunny and her guests were playing tennis at the resort midmorning Thursday — business as usual, she said.
"There's a huge forest fire, but there are forest fires everywhere," she said. "The whole valley is an amazing place and we have people experiencing what they want to do."