Firefighters Attack Glacier Park Fire As Elite Reinforcements Arrive

Roughly 200 personnel and six helicopters are battling the Reynolds Creek Fire

By Dillon Tabish
The Reynolds Creek Fire in Glacier National Park on July 22, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Update: July 23, 4 p.m.

Fueled by high winds and dry conditions, a wildfire is chewing through heavy timber on the east side of Glacier National Park as firefighters and helicopters scramble to contain the blaze that is moving northeast along St. Mary Lake and near Going-to-the-Sun Road.

Roughly 200 personnel and six helicopters are battling the Reynolds Creek Fire, which is burning in a dense, rugged section of forest plagued by beetle kill and a region afflicted with drought conditions. The fire is not contained and remains at 4,000 acres, according to the last estimates from Thursday morning.

A red flag warning was issued Thursday for potentially dangerous weather conditions and extreme fire behavior. Forecasters predicted 20-30 mph wind gusts and low humidity that could cause the wildfire to quickly spread. Relief could arrive this weekend as cool, wet weather sweeps across Northwest Montana, including the high country in Glacier Park.

Firefighters are performing direct suppression tactics on the southwest section of the fire where it’s possible. Helicopters are dropping water on the northeast portion.

Structures in the St. Mary area are identified as potentially threatened, according to fire information officers. Evacuations were ordered throughout the St. Mary Valley on Wednesday and hundreds of residents and tourists fled the area.

A Type I incident management team, the nation’s preeminent interagency resource for battling wildfires, is preparing to assume command of the blaze that has scorched 6 square miles.

Greg Poncin, a Type I incident commander from Kalispell, and his elite team of firefighters, including multiple helicopters, will assume command Thursday night. The blaze is listed as one of the nation’s priority fires in the National Interagency Coordination Center’s situation report.

Poncin’s team is one of 16 in the nation that is called upon to tackle the most complex and dangerous wildfire incidents.

The team will focus on protecting a hotel and campground that sit in the fire’s path, according to the Associated Press. The fire was roughly 10 miles from the St. Mary Visitor’s Center on Wednesday, according to the National Park Service.

The National Weather Service said snow could fall at elevations around 8,000 feet this weekend. Temperatures will begin to cool and winds will increase Sunday. The main weather disturbance will arrive Monday with the coolest temperatures of the week. The system could exit the area quickly Tuesday morning, with drier and quieter weather following for the remainder of the week, according to the NWS.

The fire has already destroyed one structure, the Baring Creek Cabin, also known as the Sun Camp Fireguard Cabin. A vehicle was also burned.

“We’re kind of in the direct line right now,” Susan Brooke, who owns the St. Mary Glacier Park KOA, told the Associated Press. “It’s raging down the ridge toward St. Mary.”

Brooke said more than 600 people were in the campground when the fire ignited Tuesday afternoon about 6 miles east of Logan Pass.

Park officials evacuated the Rising Sun Motor Inn and two campgrounds. Later, Glacier County and Blackfeet tribal authorities began the evacuations of the homes along St. Mary Lake. The National Park Service also evacuated the St. Mary Visitor Center and administrative offices.

Several backpackers were found and were to be taken out of danger, according to the National Park Service.

The west side of the park remains unaffected and open to visitors.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.