On Tuesday afternoon, while taking a Glacier Park Boat Co. tour on St. Mary Lake, Erin Conwell and other passengers noticed a column of white smoke forming over the forest. The captain of the boat said it had been a long time since Glacier National Park had a major wildfire and then went on to talk about the dangers and benefits of fire on the landscape.
By the time Conwell and the others got off the boat, they had seen first-hand the destructive power of wildfires.
“We watched the fire from when it was producing a small column of white smoke to when it was producing thick, black smoke,” Conwell told the Beacon Wednesday. “It was frighteningly fast.”
Conwell lives in Washington, D.C. and has been visiting Northwest Montana on a business trip this week. On Tuesday, she and some colleagues decided to take a boat tour. Soon after departing the dock at Rising Sun at around 4 p.m., a column of smoke appeared nearby. That smoke was emanating from the Reynolds Creek Fire, which was first reported by shuttle bus drivers at about 3:45 p.m. as a small 2-acre burn.
Within a few hours, the fire would morph into a blazing 2,000-acre monster, forcing the evacuation of the community of St. Mary and the closing of a vast section of the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
Conwell said the only time she has ever seen a wildfire is on television, and for a while the passengers aboard the boat thought that firefighters would be able to quickly douse the flames. It soon became apparent that would not be the case.
Conwell said it wasn’t long before the passengers could see flames and a video that she posted on Twitter shows the thick plume casting a shadow over the lake.
“It was terrifying to see the fire move so fast but it was also fascinating,” she said. “It was incredible to see it up close.”
The boat lingered in the lake for more than an hour because the captain wanted to make sure there were no hikers along the shore who needed to be rescued. Later, the boat returned to the Rising Sun dock and Conwell and the passengers were rushed to their cars and advised to leave the park immediately.
While Conwell’s experience on the east side of the park was cut short, she still filled a camera with images of the fire up close and came away with an unforgettable story to tell back home.