- Associated Press - Friday, August 21, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Describing the weather Friday afternoon as extremely windy, fire officials said they remain concerned about a wildfire approaching the town of Essex near U.S. Highway 2 and Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s main northern rail line.

The forecast near the fire on Glacier National Park’s southern boundary and throughout western Montana calling for high winds and possible thunderstorms means the fire could reach the highway and prompt evacuations, fire information officer Sonja Hartmann said.

“It could see the most growth today,” Hartmann said of the fire located in the Great Bear Wilderness about 2 ½ miles south of Essex and a half-mile from the highway.

Firefighters in the area are working that fire and two others burning in Glacier National Park and Flathead National Forest.

Flathead County Sheriff’s officials have told 106 residents in and around Essex to load their vehicles and prepare to evacuate. About 200 structures are at risk.

About 55 miles of Highway 2 is now closed to the public between West Glacier and East Glacier, with the exception of those who live along the road. The rail corridor near Essex that was shut down on Thursday by authorities remains closed.

The number of people fighting those fires increased from 212 on Thursday to 253 on Friday, Hartmann said. “I’m sure we’d have more if more were available,” she said.

Crews were able to keep the fire away from Essex on Thursday with help from helicopters making numerous drops of fire retardant.

West of Essex near the Idaho border, people in about 50 homes near Noxon were ordered to evacuate Wednesday and Thursday, with those in neighboring areas told to be ready to leave, fire information officer John Head said.

No further evacuations were ordered Friday morning, but officials are still concerned that the fire could spread and combine with those nearby. “We’re already seeing some winds picking up, and humidities are just crazy low,” he said.

A separate fire burning in the Flathead National Forest east of Swan Lake grew Thursday from less than 500 acres to more than 17 square miles and jumped the South Fork of the Flathead River. No buildings were destroyed, but an undisclosed number of vehicles and trailers belonging to outfitters burned in the fire’s rapid spread, fire officials said.

Wildfire smoke continued to plague western Montana, and it has spread to the eastern part of the state as far as Broadus.

On Friday afternoon, Montana Department of Environmental Quality officials had issued the worst air quality rating possible for Hamilton, saying conditions are hazardous and that everyone should avoid outdoor exertion.

Also in Hamilton and in the Flathead Valley, St. Mary and Lewistown_where they have only a slightly better rating_officials advise that children, the elderly and people with heart or respiratory problems stay indoors.

Other Montana cities from Libby to West Yellowstone to Broadus and those in between, are seeing only marginally better air quality.

The wind may improve air quality Friday afternoon with the exception of far western Montana, Department of Environmental Quality officials said. Air quality is expected to deteriorate again on Sunday.

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