LAKE McDONALD — In August, Glacier National Park was teeming with humanity. Campgrounds were full, parking lots were packed and more than 908,000 people flooded through the gates of America’s 10th national park. But two months after the rain disappeared, so too have the tourists.
Walking through the smoke to the deserted Lake McDonald Lodge, it’s hard to believe this was the busiest summer in park history.
“The summer of 2017 was already a remarkable one in so many ways,” said Superintendent Jeff Mow at a packed public meeting in West Glacier last week. “It’s been a long summer, and it’s not over yet.”
While many thought record-shattering visitation would be how history books remember 2017, it will likely be overshadowed by the fires that brought that historic season to an early end.
The Sprague Fire, which as of Sept. 11 had burned more than 14,000 acres, prompted the early closure of Lake McDonald Lodge due to thick and hazardous smoke. On Aug. 31, the fire made a dramatic run and destroyed the historic Sperry Chalet. Two days later, National Park Service officials decided to evacuate a large swath of the park’s west side.
While many in attendance at the Sept. 6 public meeting wanted to know what was next for the three major fires in the park, many also wanted to know what would happen with the remains of Sperry Chalet and what was being done to protect Lake McDonald Lodge, both beloved structures built in the 1910s. Mow said that as soon as it’s safe, the park will conduct a structural assessment on Sperry Chalet and record what is left of the National Historic Landmark. He also announced that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke called for a full investigation into how the chalet burned.
“For a lot of us, losing the Sperry Chalet felt like losing a member of the family,” Mow said.
Ten miles up the closed Going-to-the-Sun Road, it was clear that firefighters were taking no chances of letting Lake McDonald Lodge suffer the same fate as Sperry. The day after the meeting, firefighters were setting up miles of water hose and pipe to keep the area around Lake McDonald Lodge wet. Sections of the roof were also wrapped with fire protective material to prevent embers from getting inside the building. Massive 2,000-gallon orange portable water tubs, dubbed “pumpkins” because of their shape and color, were standing at the ready just outside the front door, normally where the historic Red Buses load up passengers. A few miles away, the historic cabin once owned by U.S. Sen. Burton K. Wheeler was wrapped with fire resistant material.
“Hopefully this is all for nothing,” said Tyler Keith, a Missoula-based firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service heading up efforts to protect the buildings at Lake McDonald.
Getting hose, protective wrap and even firefighters has been challenging, said Incident Commander Diane Hutton, who has fought fire for more than 40 years. As of Sept. 7, there were more than 160 large fires burning across the West, each one fighting for the same shrinking pool of supplies. Two massive hurricane recoveries were not helping the situation either, Hutton said.
“I have never seen such a dire situation in the West,” she said.