Policemen were giving drivers two options at Beetlebung corner on Monday afternoon after the Coast Guard boathouse in Menemsha caught fire. They could either turn onto Middle Road or South Road. Menemsha Crossroad remained closed.

By 5:30 p.m., officers were allowing residents as far down as Flanders Lane and the Menemsha Inn to use the road to return home. They had been directing motorists to use alternate routes since 10 minutes after the call came in for the fire, between 2:30 and 3 p.m. Earlier, some were allowed to get out of their cars and walk the rest of the way home.

“It’s not random,” officer Alex Elias of Edgartown said while directing traffic, about the people he was letting go through. “It depends how far they live. If they’re elderly or live around the corner, we’re letting them through.”

Menemsha Crossroad and the end of North Road were closed to all foot and vehicle traffic at first, but by about 5 p.m. residents were slowly beginning to be allowed back home.

“People need to realize there’s a fire and we have engines from all six towns here,” Officer Elias said to one driver. “Menemsha is on fire,” he explained to another. He suggested to one driver that they pull over and let someone walk the rest of the way, and said he didn’t know when the roads would be open again.

Officer Steven Mathias of Aquinnah was also helping direct traffic at Beetlebung Corner, and said for the most part that people were being courteous and understanding. Long lines formed in all directions to pass through the intersection, but the officers kept the traffic moving steadily.

“Most people don’t know about it,” Officer Mathias said. “People think they can get in a third way, but they can’t.” His orders were to stay there until further notice.

Nearby residents were coming up to the officers asking if they’d seen one person or another, or suggesting they allow Menemsha fishermen through to check on their boats. But the officers said their hands were tied for the most part, and they did not recognize the familiar Chilmark faces.

Susan Whittlesey was walking back from Menemsha toward Beetlebung Corner after witnessing the fire from the dock of the Menemsha Bike Ferry. “It was a little unfathomable,” she said. “It enveloped so quickly. People were fast and conscientious to get out of the area.”

She said emergency responders had towels over their heads to protect them from the heat and smoke inhalation. Debra Troderman, who was on the beach with her family when the fire broke out, said her eyes began to burn and it became hard to breathe.

Joining her on the front porch of the Chilmark Store were Amy Cody and John Furst. All three were with their families on Menemsha Beach when the boathouse caught fire. Ms. Troderman’s family climbed over the dunes at Menemsha Beach to the Beach Plum Inn, where they were picked up by friends.

“It was mayhem in the parking lot,” Ms. Cody said, adding that people didn’t know which way to turn. “We didn’t know if the gas station was going to catch next,” Ms. Troderman said. “There were about 50 people on the beach, and we kept moving farther down to the right. The police finally told us to get off the beach,” Mr. Furst added. “It got really dark, and really hot.”

The three were shaken by the afternoon’s events. They described a horrible smell that followed the fire; they pulled their T-shirts over their mouths to be able to breathe more easily. Ms. Cody and Mr. Furst left Menemsha in their boat, moving to Clam Cove. “There were big pieces of burned wharf in the water headed into Menemsha Pond,” Mr. Furst said.

“It’s scary, but we’re incredibly lucky so far,” one Menemsha Crossroad resident said, who asked not to have her name used. The resident was waiting for her mother and her daughter’s baby sitter to escort them through the police barricade. “It’s such a small community; so people have been really good about communicating.”