Firefighters did what little they could in warm, breezy weather Tuesday to keep a large wildfire threatening about 1,500 homes away from this northwestern Montana tourist town.
More than 15,000 acres, or 23 square miles, have burned since the blaze started Friday about 50 miles northeast of Missoula. Firefighters were concerned that higher winds could force the flames toward Seeley Lake, a town with about 5,000 residents in the summer.
“We are prepared for the worst, and people should pray for the best,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer said.
From the air, the fire initially looked like a series of small campfires lapping at trees, but then a big swath of blackened forest came into view, including the rubble of one home.
Another home, a commercial building and seven outbuildings also were damaged, authorities have said.
The fire was about 2 miles from town, said Tom Kempton, a fire information officer. It was 10 percent contained Tuesday night. Residents remained in Seeley Lake, but hundreds of outlying homes had been ordered evacuated. The National Weather Service was predicting winds as high as 20 mph.
Firefighters took the unusual step of building containment lines in advance of the fire, rather than attacking it from the sides. At a morning briefing, they were reminded that their lives were more important than protecting property.
“No heroics, OK?” said Steve Wallace, with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. “When you get the word to pull out, pull out.”
The governor, meeting with a fire crew, also urged safety. “There isn’t a single house that’s worth losing a life,” Schweitzer said.
Evacuation orders remained in effect for several other blazes in the state, including fires southeast of Missoula and one southwest of Whitefish that has burned 18,927 acres, or 29.5 square miles.
Another fire burning just south of Billings led to evacuation orders for residents of more than 240 homes Tuesday, fire officials said. The fire, more than 125 acres, was burning in grass, brush and trees just outside a subdivision.
In Los Olivos, Calif., firefighters wrapped a historic tavern in aluminum Tuesday to protect it from an advancing blaze in northern Santa Barbara County that started more than a month ago.
The fire was heading away from the Cold Spring Tavern, a 140-year-old wooden building in San Marcos Pass, but crews wanted to make sure the former stagecoach stop was fireproofed in case winds shifted.
Meanwhile, about 650 people remained unable to return to 175 cabins in communities that were evacuated last week.
The wildfire, in mountainous Los Padres National Forest about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, has covered 109 square miles. It was 68 percent contained but might not be fully contained for another month.
Elsewhere, a forest fire in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula grew to 17,000 acres, or 26 square miles, on Tuesday, and officials began ordering evacuations near the community of Pine Stump Junction, said the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
About 200 people were expected to leave their homes, and authorities were telling campers to leave. No injuries were reported and no structures had been damaged. The fire started last Thursday, probably ignited by lightning, officials said.