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A handout map image made available by the U.S. Geological Survey shows the location of a magnitude-7.9 earthquake.

LOS ANGELES—Officials canceled a tsunami warning for most of the West Coast early Tuesday after a massive earthquake off the coast of Alaska was only expected to generate small waves in some areas.

The 7.9-magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Alaska sent residents of a remote island fleeing for higher ground and put millions across the West Coast on alert for tsunami waves for a few hours—from British Columbia to Southern California.

The National Tsunami Center canceled the warnings, but left a tsunami advisory—a lower alert level—in place for parts of Alaska. Canadian officials also lifted warnings for parts of Vancouver early Tuesday.

“A tsunami was generated but does not pose a threat to these areas,” the National Weather Service tweeted.

Vehicles are seen during a tsunami warning evacuation in Kodiak, Alaska, on Tuesday.

Vehicles are seen during a tsunami warning evacuation in Kodiak, Alaska, on Tuesday. Photo: social media/Reuters

Parts of Alaska remained on alert, however, and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said state officials “are closely monitoring” the situation and urged people to “heed local warnings to move inland or to higher ground.”

The quake struck at 12:33 a.m. local time about 160 miles southeast of Kodiak, a large island in the Gulf of Alaska, according to an alert from the U.S. Geological Survey. The USGS had earlier given the quake a magnitude of 8.2.

Tsunami sirens wailed across the island, which has a population of around 13,000 people, and local police warned residents to move to higher ground. Social-media videos showed long lines of vehicles in the dark. Many headed toward Pillar Mountain, according to local reports.

“This is not a drill this is actual a tsunami warning,” Kodiak police posted on their Facebook page. “Everybody get at least 100 feet above sea level.” An officer in the video urged residents to get to a local high-school parking lot.

Two hours after the quake hit, Kodiak police said water was receding from the harbor, a sign of an incoming wave.

In the past, tsunami waves of only a few feet have caused serious damage to small coastal communities.

Emergency Management British Columbia had issued a warning for the north coast, the central coast and areas near Vancouver, urging all residents to move to high ground or to upper floors of a multistory building.

“A tsunami is a series of waves. The first wave may not be the largest,” the warning said.

Sirens went off in Tofino, a coastal community north of Vancouver, and other areas Tuesday morning, residents gathered community centers and other shelters, according to local media and Twitter .

A women tweeted pictures of dozens people packed into a Tofino emergency center, saying “all cozy and settling in for the morning. If you’re not here, get here!”

—Sara Schaefer Muñoz contributed to this article.

Write to Tamara Audi at tammy.audi@wsj.com

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