Glacier’s Big Burn

Remembering the Robert Fire, which burned 57,570 acres of land in Glacier National Park and the Flathead National Forest and forced multiple evacuations of the Lake McDonald Valley and West Glacier

By Justin Franz
2003 Roberts Fire. Photo Courtesy of Glacier National Park.

WEST GLACIER – The rolled-up maps in Dennis Divoky’s office show the enormity of the 2003 fires in Glacier National Park. Huge swaths of land are colored in red and orange, depicting in print the 136,000 acres of land burned that summer. It was the biggest fire season in the park’s history – even larger than 1910’s “Big Burn.”

“The 2003 season is the pinnacle,” said Divoky, fire ecologist for the park.

That summer, the National Park Service responded to 26 wildfires that scorched roughly 13 percent of the park’s land. Of those, six blazes were larger than 10,000 acres. The Robert Fire alone burned 57,570 acres of land in the park and Flathead National Forest and forced multiple evacuations of the Lake McDonald Valley and West Glacier. By September, the fires had cost the Park Service more than $68 million.

While the maps, numbers and data in Divoky’s office show the scale of the 2003 fires, they do little to tell the story – the story of frantic evacuations, bold back burns and tense times. It’s a story told best in the words of those who lived it.

Divoky, Glacier National Park fire cache manager in 2003: We went through an under-average winter, snowpack wise, but nothing epic or out of the ordinary. June is the rainy month, it’s the June monsoon as we joke, and so the first three weeks we got two-and-a-half inches of rain, if I remember right. All of a sudden, on June 23, it just quit until mid-September. There was one halfway decent thunderstorm, but it wasn’t widespread. So it started like any normal summer.

Cindy Ognjanov, president of Glacier Park Inc., 2002 to present: June, as I recall, was a record month for visitation in the park that summer. But it got really hot fast. I mean, we had some early rains in June, but then it stopped.

Bill Lundgren, retail manager of the West Glacier Mercantile: It was abnormally busy. Then the fires started and everything changed.

On July 9, the first wildfire of the season is reported along the Middle Fork Flathead River. At less than 1 acre, it is contained by noon on July 11.

Mick Holm, superintendent of Glacier National Park, 2002 to 2008: At that time I was in constant communication with my folks over at the fire cache. Even before everything broke loose, I was getting a daily fire report. We knew the right ingredients were there and if a fire broke loose, it would be big.

On July 17, fire lookouts report six different starts in the park following an early morning lightning storm. Three are immediately suppressed. The following day, the 10-acre Trapper Fire is discovered on West Flattop Mountain. That same afternoon, the Numa Lookout spots the Wedge Canyon Fire just outside of the park’s northwest boundary. The fire grows to 300 acres in one afternoon and a Type 2 Incident Management team is ordered. Two days later it grows to more than 4,000 acres and becomes the highest priority fire in the nation. At the same time, the Trapper Fire grows to 3,600 acres. Other fires are sparked across the park during the next few days.

Holm: It seemed like there was just a series of fires. One fire started and next thing you know, another one was starting somewhere else. We were getting these maps and there were fires all over.

Divoky: (On July 23), the resource management ranger, the operations chief and I flew the Trapper Fire. We were in the air from 1 to 3 p.m. and it was active, but it wasn’t scary. Well, we flew back and by the time you do this and that in the office, all of a sudden we hear it’s blowing up. It happened in just four hours, when the jet stream dropped. That’s when the fires blew up. That was the heads up that this is going to be a little different summer.

The sun sets in Glacier National Park as smoke rises from the Robert Fire in August 2003. – Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

That day at 4:30 p.m., the Huckleberry Lookout spots the Robert Fire outside of the park along the North Fork of the Flathead River. In a matter of hours it grows from 10 acres to 1,945 acres.

Michael Jamison, reporter for the Missoulian, who had just moved from the North Fork area: I learned about the (Robert Fire) because friends were calling me about this huge plume of smoke and they were wondering if they could pitch a tent in my backyard in Whitefish. And so as my old neighbors ran out with all of their belongings, I was running in with my reporter’s notebook to see what was happening.

The fire was actually named by the lookout who spotted it and he named the fire for his father Robert, which broke a long-held tradition of naming them for geographic features. I’m sure by the end of the summer, his father didn’t appreciate that.

Bill Schustrom, interpretive park ranger: We were all down here at Apgar watching the smoke from the Trapper Fire when somebody said, ‘turn around.’ The next thing we saw was smoke coming from the (Robert Fire) behind Apgar Mountain.

Two hours later, at 6:45 p.m., the Trapper Fire makes a run for the Granite Park Chalet and The Loop. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed and 41 people are trapped at the chalet for the night. There are also concerns that the fire will spread east over Swiftcurrent Pass toward the Many Glacier Valley.

Divoky: To get the road closed, it was all lights and sirens for the rangers (who drove) down the road, cleared it out and blocked each end. They had to tell people going down to keep moving and to tell those going up that they had to go around the other way, around the east side, because we’re not going to let you drive into a wildfire.

The fire got so hot at The Loop that three or four Porta-Potties just melted to the asphalt.

Ognjanov: (The Trapper Fire) was burning near Swiftcurrent Pass and another was burning around the corner and so those were threatening the Many Glacier Valley. I had been in contact with the east side rangers and the Park Service and there were conversations about when (we might need to evacuate). So that night, I had a meeting with all of my directors at my house in East Glacier. It was 11 p.m., we met in my dining room, and we put together a plan for how we would evacuate the Many Glacier Hotel and Swiftcurrent Motor Inn. We weren’t even thinking of Lake McDonald at that time.

A Sky Crane helicopter is seen against smoke from the Robert Fire in 2003 – Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Divoky: That night (of July 23) we had heard there were three young girls who went down the trail to The Loop from the Granite Park Chalet, past the closed sign. That was the last they were seen. And so that evening, we thought we had three fatalities in the park; I mean they couldn’t have survived. So after the trail cooled off, someone went down that night to see if they could help anybody and he couldn’t find anyone. Did they get lost in the smoke? Did they lose the trail? Well, all of the cars were gone from The Loop (and no one was reported missing), so they must have realized their mistake, turned around and went back around the chalet.

On July 24, the hikers stuck at the Granite Park Chalet escape down the Highline Trail via Logan Pass. That same day, the Robert Fire continues to burn toward the Lake McDonald Valley. Incident management teams and firefighters are being mobilized across the park.

Ognjanov: At 5 a.m. the next morning, we got all of our trucks in East Glacier and headed to the Many Glacier Valley. By the time we got there, we could see smoke coming out of Swiftcurrent Pass. At about 9:30 a.m., I made the decision to evacute the hotels … We made arrangements to take all of the employees to East Glacier, because there is a lot of space.

Holm: Even though we had excellent crews, we came to realize that even with all the tools and personnel we had, it was going to take an act of nature to stop these fires. There were fires all over the park; to the north of us, to the west of us. It just seemed like we were surrounded.

At the Lake McDonald Lodge, Glacier Park Inc. employees are getting ready to celebrate Christmas in July.

Todd Ashcraft, Lake McDonald Lodge transportation manager: Some people think it’s redneck or goofy, but you spend a whole season up here, so it’s good to (celebrate) something like that. We put up a Christmas tree and Santa comes on a Red Bus … We have singing at the piano and we have cookies and punch. So we were doing all that, but we kind of had a feeling that something was going on that morning.

Ognjanov: By noon, we had pretty much evacuated Many Glacier Hotel and Swiftcurrent of guests and employees. We were driving back across the pass and at the only spot I had cell service, I called my secretary. She said I had to call the park because they want to talk about evacuating Lake McDonald.

Marti Alltucker, 18-year-old boat captain with the Glacier Boat Co. at the Lake McDonald Lodge: I remember that the 7 p.m. boat was out and they were heading south. I was around the lake and you could hear the fire coming before you could see it. The clouds looked like a huge storm. When it came over the ridge, it was just this wall of orange.

Holm: When (embers) started shooting across the lake we decided to evacuate people. We had to tell guests, ‘sorry, but you have to get out.’

On July 24, an estimated 3,000 people are evacuated from the Lake McDonald Valley, including Apgar and park headquarters. Law enforcement and fire personnel remain at headquarters.

Ashcraft: We stopped and took photos by the Christmas tree. I know it sounds goofy but that’s what we did, and then we loaded up all the Red Buses with employees. I just remember that color of the sky and seeing some of the embers come from across the lake and hearing the sirens. It was amazing. The smoke and the smell and the light. It wasn’t even real.

A long line of cars rolls through West Glacier, after the National Park Service decided to evacuate Apgar and the surrounding area. – Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Schustrom: They evacuated Apgar because they thought it was going to be another 1929. (That was when the) Half Moon Fire started near Columbia Falls, burned up through the Canyon and destroyed Apgar.

Bill Hayden, interpretive specialist on the west side of the park, who lived near Park Headquarters: We didn’t have a lot of time, but we were told to prepare in case we did have to evacuate. You kind of sit around and think, “What do I need?” The things I ended up taking was some clothing, my electronic gizmos, you know cameras, computers and hard drives, and then of course photos and family memorabilia. The other stuff you just go, “Well, I hope it doesn’t burn.”

More firefighters and management teams are mobilized as fires burn across Glacier National Park.

Divoky: The firefighters’ goals were to contain the fires and protect buildings. We also wanted to protect the lookouts because they had radio repeaters.

Holm: 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 from Canada pick up water… That was one of those moments where we realized that this was going to be something people will remember.

As the Robert Fire grows, it takes aim at West Glacier and the community prepares to evacuate. A Type 1 management team from Alaska proposes a back burn in the park to draw the fire north and protect the town. To start the blaze, helicopters would drop fuel-filled ping-pong balls on the fire.

Holm: We met with the Type 1 team and the prognosis was that the fire was going to keep moving east and possibly engulf West Glacier. The option presented to me was to set back burns below Apgar Mountain.

Divoky: The (Type 1) team was from Alaska and because they have so much land up there to play with, they are so much more comfortable setting up a control line, burning out from that and gobbling up 20, 30, 40, 100,000 acres.

Holm: As administrator, I had to sign off on the plan; the ultimate decision lied with me.

Jamison: That’s why he gets paid the big bucks, because when a bunch of guys from Alaska come down and say they want to light your park on fire, I’m sure there are more questions than answers at that point.

Divoky: It took three days to set up. It wasn’t like they just went out with this ping-pong ball machine on the helicopter and just fired it up. They had to prep the Camas Road, the Apgar area and some private property.

On July 26, 400 people attend a public meeting in West Glacier.

Holm: You have those defining moments in one’s career, in one’s life, and I will never forget the community meeting. We answered questions and told the community what we were going to do. I had to stand in front of the folks and tell them that I had full confidence in my people and our plan … I’ll never forget telling people that this (plan) isn’t 100 percent, but it’s the plan we’ve got and we’re going to hope it works.

On July 28 at 4 p.m., West Glacier is evacuated. That evening, back burns are set to draw the fire away from the town.

Jamison: I remember working with a photographer from Missoula and we had a pretty simple day planned. We were going to talk to people in West Glacier and then all the sudden they got the evacuation order. We were interviewing them as they were packing photos of grandma … You don’t want to be in the way and sometimes you stuff your notebook in your pocket and start carrying things out the door for them.

Matt Dalimata, West Glacier resident in a Missoulian story: We’re all just getting the hell out of Dodge.

The back burn draws the fire north the night of July 28 and away from West Glacier. A few days later, people are able to return, although access in the park is limited and the Robert Fire continues to grow.

Ognjanov: When we finally got to go back to the Lake McDonald Lodge, there was a dead Christmas tree in the lobby.

Alltucker: It was such an eerie place to be when we finally went back, because there was no traffic on the road. There were a lot of firefighters around and it was just the thickest smoke because it just hung on the lake. You couldn’t see anything. It was crazy because it was snowing ash all the time. You would wake up in the morning and there would be a film of ash on your kitchen table.

Ashcraft: (In the evening), we would sit on the beach and watch trees just fire up across the lake.

Hayden: A lot of visitors’ first reaction was that they were horrified, because we all grew up with Smokey The Bear and we all learned that fire is bad if it’s going to burn up homes. But part of our job was to explain that all the fires were lightning caused, with the exception of the Robert Fire, and so it was a natural event. Of course, you’re trying to explain to people that fire is OK, but at the same time there are planes flying overhead trying to put it out.

Holm: I had been sitting on my deck at home in Columbia Falls after a long day. I had been putting in long hours as you can imagine, and I was just sitting here dog tired. I remember looking across the valley and seeing smoke come from another fire (near the Hungry Horse Reservoir) and I thought, “I just can’t get away from this, can I?” I still think about that plume of smoke when I’m on the deck.

Fires burn well into August and on the 10th, the Lake McDonald Lodge area is evacuated for a second time after the Robert Fire ran up the Howe Ridge, burning 7,000 acres in just four hours. Rain finally comes to the area in early September, but firefighters keep working well into the fall. The final crews are released on Oct. 24. The fires scorched more than 136,000 acres, the most ever burned in the park’s 103-year history. Amazingly, only a few old outbuildings burned inside the park.

Divoky: Back in 1910, almost as many acres burned, but there was hardly anybody here. There were a few trails and a few cabins, and I’m sure they weren’t happy about it, but there was nothing in the way.

2003 was the biggest event. (But) for as much fire as there was on the landscape, it could have been a lot worse.

Holm: We had thousands of firefighters up there and, if I remember right, we only had one injury. It’s remarkable.

In all honesty, I think we made the right decisions. It turned out the best it could have considering what we were facing. We had some excellent people working the fire and behind the scenes. When I look back, I can’t think of anything I would have done differently.

Ognjanov: The teamwork was the most memorable thing. We forged a team with ourselves, but more importantly, the Park Service and Glacier Park Inc. forged a team. We couldn’t have done what we did if we had not worked together. Mick Holm and I became good friends that year. We’re still good friends.

Alltucker: I learned a lot. At 18 years old, it was a great learning experience for me. I really appreciated the area more and realized that we have no control. It doesn’t matter that this lodge has been here for 100 years or that the forest up at Avalanche Creek is 500 years old. It doesn’t matter because (the fire) is coming through and there is nothing we can do to stop it. It was a very humbling experience.

I lived in the smoke for a month and I was going to college that fall. I moved into my dorm the day before school started and all of my stuff smelled so badly. I couldn’t get the smoke smell out for weeks. My new roommate was not impressed.

Lundgren: The impression was lasting. I know this because in the intervening years, whenever I smell smoke in August or September, it brings back a lot of memories of that fire season.

Schustrom: We still do interpretive walks into the burned area a couple of times a week and it’s amazing to see how it’s recovered. It’s just amazing how fire can be so destructive and at the same time how beneficial it can be.

We get asked 10, 15, 20 times a day, “what happened over there (on that burned mountain)?” And we just tell the story I just told you.

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