HAMILTON, Mont. -- Choking wildfire smoke in southwestern Montana prompted more evacuations as the governor prepared to declare the state a disaster area.
The latest evacuations were in an area south of where other Bitterroot Valley residents have been allowed to return home. The order to leave came as an 111,000-acre swarm of fires accelerated near the Idaho line.
The smoke was so thick in some valleys Tuesday afternoon that motorists turned on lights near Butte. Health officials said the smoke trapped in the Bitterroot and Missoula valleys made air quality "very unhealthy."
The State Emergency Coordination Center said Gov. Marc Racicot planned to issue an executive order Wednesday declaring Montana a disaster area. More than 2,000 blazes have burned 457,000 acres statewide.
"This primarily is for use of the National Guard anywhere in the state in anticipation of conditions deteriorating," a center spokesman said. Previous orders by Racicot allowed use of guard units in specified areas, not statewide.
The latest evacuations were in a large area some 50 miles south of Hamilton, almost in Idaho, and covered about 100 homes, said Jim Chinn of the Ravalli County Sheriff's Department.
While residents of some 900 houses have been allowed to return home, hundreds of others remained out of their homes for a second week as fires burned on.
The National Interagency Fire Center in Idaho said the 25 largest fires burning in Montana represented almost half the 964,721 acres burning across the West, in what has been described as the nation's worst wildfire season in a half century.
In Idaho, helicopters continued pounding the southern bank of the main Salmon River with water Tuesday as officials decided the danger was too great to keep open the popular rafting river and the 2.4 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness.
Water drops and sparse fuel on the river's southern bank have kept one major wildfire from jumping north into the wilderness. But Forest Service supervisors said other fires were burning unchecked over 182,000 acres in the protected area.
The closure will take effect Thursday morning at 12:01 a.m., affecting 2,000 miles of trails, all backcountry air strips and 80 miles of the river from Cache Bar to Carey Creek. It will likely remain in effect until fall.
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