Wildfires have played a prominent role in transforming the landscape of Glacier National Park throughout its 105-year history.
The Reynolds Creek Fire serves as the latest reminder of that incendiary influence as it burns over 2,000 acres in the St. Mary area. It’s the largest fire in the park since 2006, when the Red Eagle Fire scorched 34,000 acres.
The barren landscape along Lake McDonald, remnants of the 2003 Roberts Fire, which burned 57,570 acres in one summer, is perhaps the most visible example of fire’s powerful force and lasting effect. The fire was one of six massive blazes that burned more than 136,000 acres of land in Glacier that year, more than 13 percent of the preserve’s 1 million acres.
“The 2003 season is the pinnacle,” said Dennis Divoky, fire ecologist for the park.
But the fires of 2003 are only one chapter in the park’s long history shaped by fire and ash.
Here’s a rundown of some of the largest fires in the Crown Jewel of the Continent.
The year that Glacier was designated a national park, over 100,000 acres burned across the landscape. It was one of many significant fire seasons in the park. Researchers have studied fire-scarred ponderosa pine and western larch trees and found that 66 individual fire years have occurred dating back to 1470, according to Joe Decker with the National Park Service.
Fires on the west side of the park burned more than 42,000 acres that summer. In one harrowing story, a group of park rangers who were fighting the blaze along the North Fork of the Flathead River escaped the flames on a homemade raft. “Seeing the fire rapidly crowding them, they threw together a raft of logs, fastened with a few pieces of rope and floated down the river between two walls of flame, their tricky boat threatening to collapse at any minute” the Billings Gazette reported in its Aug. 27 issue. “They had floated but a few rods out of the fire when the raft fell into pieces and they were obliged to swim to shore. No one drowned but a considerable amount of hose and provisions were lost in the river.”
The Halfmoon Fire started near Columbia Falls and scorched more than 100,000 acres in and out of the park by the end of the summer. The fire warranted a massive response that a Butte man likened to wartime troop movements as “hundreds of firefighters were rushed to combat the flames that were threatening virgin timber of the park,” the Montana Standard reported. “Virtually every highway in the park or leading to it was jammed with trucks and men being rushed to the front line fire defense.”
In August, the Many Glacier Hotel almost burned to the ground when the Heaven’s Peak Fire ran down the Swiftcurrent Valley. After helping evacuate the area, hotel employees worked through the night to keep the wood structure wet and doused spot fires that cropped up around it. While the hotel was spared, numerous surrounding structures were lost. The morning after the fire, the hotel manager telegraphed Great Northern Railway headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota to tell them that their hotel had been saved. Railroad officials came back with a one-word response: “Why?” With the Great Depression hurting ticket sales, it seems the railroad could have cut their losses if the massive hotel had burned.
In the midst of a hot, dry summer, the Red Bench Fire burned more than 38,000 acres of land on the west side of the park. One firefighter was killed during the fire and 19 others were injured. The fire also destroyed 25 dwellings and numerous outbuildings, according to Joe Decker with the National Park Service. Among the firefighters who battled the blaze was a ranger from Alaska named Jeff Mow. Twenty five years later, Mow became the park’s current superintendent. For most of the summer, the famous fires in Yellowstone National Park demanded national attention as 793,880 acres burned, or 36 percent of the park. Thousands of firefighters battled the blaze, including 4,000 U.S. military personnel.
No wildfire season in Glacier Park has been as big and historic as 2003, when 13 percent of the park burned. Through July and August, communities in and out of the park were evacuated and at one point firefighters set a back burn with fuel-filled Ping-Pong balls to draw the fire away from West Glacier. “I remember at one time, my deputy and I went up to Lake McDonald and we were standing on the lake, watching the scooper planes pick up water,” said former Superintendent Mick Holm. “That was one of those moments where we realized that this was going to be something people will remember.”
Read more about the summer of 2003 in the Flathead Beacon’s oral history “Glacier’s Big Burn.”
A small fire erupted on the eastern edge of the park near the head of Red Eagle Lake on July 28 and ballooned to over 34,000 acres, spreading into the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The cause of the fire was undetermined. The park evacuated the Cut Bank campground and closed area trails, including the backcountry Atlantic Creek campground. Highway 89 was also closed north of Browning and just south of Babb. The Red Eagle Fire burned through fall and was finally called “dead out” in winter.