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Lake McDonald Lodge (MIS) (copy)

Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park.

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK — The Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park will close Wednesday for the rest of the season because of concerns about air quality, Xanterra Parks and Resorts announced Tuesday night.

Although it's burning about 2 miles from the lodge area, "the Sprague fire is not currently and has not been a threat to the Lake McDonald developed area," Xanterra's announcement said. "However, heavy smoke from the fire has been settling in a highly localized area around the Lake McDonald Lodge."

The lodge had been expected to close on Sept. 27. But, said the 8:30 p.m. news release from Xanterra, "because employees work and live onsite, they have a longer duration exposure to the air conditions."

An air quality monitor installed at the lodge on Sunday at the request of the National Park Service showed air quality levels fluctuating between Good and "beyond the uppermost limit of 'hazardous,'" according to the release. At the park's air monitoring station at Apgar, readings fluctuated between Good and Moderate for the same period, "further supporting the observation that poor air quality appears to be concentrated in a very small geographic area of the park near the Lake McDonald Lodge area," Xanterra said.

The closure includes overnight accommodations, retail, and food and beverage services in the lodge area. Red bus tours that typically stop at the lodge will be adjusted slightly. All other front-country facilities in the park remain open.

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Around western Montana, a forecast cold front on Thursday might sound good after a seemingly endless string of hot, dry, smoky days, but its approach brings a Red Flag Warning starting at 1 p.m. Wednesday.

That means increased winds (bad for fire), but a chance — "a slight chance," warned air quality specialist Sarah Coefield — that the wind could carry away some of the smoke plaguing the region.

On the other hand, when it comes to smoke, Wednesday "could still be universally scummy," she wrote in her Tuesday afternoon update from the Missoula City-Council Health Department. The Red Flag Warning — meaning conditions are ideal for fire combustion and rapid spread — is in effect until 9 p.m. Thursday.

Like the smoke, area fires showed no signs of letting up. In Ravalli County, the Nelson Creek fire discovered Monday south of Darby led to mandatory evacuations Tuesday for about 65 residences up the West Fork of the Bitterroot. Another 225 East Fork area property owners were under evacuation warnings because of a 4,800-acre run by the Meyers fire.

"We wanted to be proactive and get ahead of the curve as far as evacuations go," said Shane Olpin, the incident commander for Nelson Creek fire.

The Nelson Creek fire, discovered Monday, is about three miles west of the West Fork Ranger Station near the Nelson Creek Trailhead. Helicopters and Hot Shot crews are being borrowed from the Lolo Peak fire, and Olpin said the plan has been full suppression from the outset. 

“It’s ‘all hands on deck’ now and for the foreseeable future, because unfortunately we’re not seeing a break in the weather,” Olpin said.

Two rounds of mandatory evacuations triggered Monday night by the Rice Ridge fire outside Seeley Lake remained in effect Tuesday. (See related story.) The fire came within a half-mile of the nearest structures late Monday night. The burn area grew about 3,000 more acres, bringing the total to about 30,700. Mandatory evacuations affected about 1,200 homes and hundreds more were issued warnings. Tuesday's gusty winds and low humidity were expected to be stronger and storms wetter as the week progresses.

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Missoula County Public Schools canceled classes at Seeley Swan High School on Tuesday because of the evacuations and later announced the school would remain closed through the Labor Day weekend. Communications Director Hatton Littman said in a statement that students will return to school next Tuesday and the district will communicate with parents this weekend if they must hold classes in an alternative location. 

The Seeley Lake Post Office announced Tuesday morning that it would be closed until further notice. Customers can instead pick up their mail at the Milltown Post Office, according to a news release.

Crews fighting the Lolo Peak fire were expected to deal with dry thunderstorms from Tuesday afternoon on, with the possibility of lightning and new fire starts.The fire has burned nearly 39,000 acres since starting July 15.

As for air quality, both Seeley Lake and Florence caught a break Tuesday afternoon, with some relief from smoke that had pooled overnight. "By 'relief,' I mean 'slightly less horrible air,'" Coefield wrote.

Air in those communities was rated Unhealthy, along with all of Missoula County, except for pockets in Rock Creek in Condon, where the air quality was merely Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.

The Ravalli Republic contributed to this story.

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