CORAM – Just beyond the cardboard sign that welcomes visitors to “Tent City” (Population 34 as of July 29), you’ll find a group of tiny temporary homes.
For more than a week, this tent colony has been home to a few dozen Xanterra Parks & Resorts employees who were removed from the Rising Sun Motor Inn due to evacuations after the Reynolds Creek Fire blew up on the east side of Glacier National Park.
While sites within the park are slowly reopening – the entire west side of the Going-to-the-Sun Road was reopened on Wednesday – the people here are still waiting for answers. Although some of them have heard that the Rising Sun Motor Inn could be reopened before the week is out, the National Park Service has not made an official announcement and the future mostly depends on what the 3,170-acre Reynolds Creek Fire does in the coming days.
As of July 29, the fire is 56 percent contained and cooler weather has helped firefighters get a handle on the blaze. Despite the progress, the fire is still listed as one of the top priority wildfires in the country, in part because of its stunning growth that first day. In just a matter of hours, the fire when from a 2-acre burn to a 2,000-acre inferno.
But at first it was just a thin tail of smoke lifting into the sky.
Colin Brehm is a native-Chicagoan and the dining room manager at Rising Sun. He said soon after the fire started, visitors started showing him photos of the fire that at that time was still a few miles up the road. No one seemed overly concerned about the small blaze. But soon after, a warm afternoon wind picked it up and ran with it, right toward Rising Sun. About an hour after the fire was first reported, park rangers told location manger Hallie Brown they were evacuating the area. By then, that single column of white had grown into a mass of thick, black smoke that blotted out the sun.
As concerning as the situation was, the second-year manager said she wasn’t surprised.
“I’ve lived in this area my whole life and I’ve never seen a June as dry as we had so we knew there was a chance that this would happen this season,” Brown said.
Brown pulled the fire alarm at the motor inn and employees started knocking on doors to make sure everyone was out. After the guests were gone, the employees started to leave. Some had time to grab a bag full of personal items (one left with just his guitar), but most did not.
“(Many of the employees are from abroad) and some of these guys didn’t even have their passport or a change of clothes,” Brown said. “One guy didn’t even have his shoes. I’m not sure how that happened.”
After leaving Rising Sun, the employees headed for Coram – some in private cars and others in Red Buses that had been dispatched from Many Glacier to pick them up. Prior to their arrival, Xanterra managers in Columbia Falls had rushed to local outdoor stores to buy tents, sleeping bags and any other supplies they may need.
That night, the employees rolled out their sleeping bags and they’ve been waiting for word on when they can go back to Rising Sun ever since. Some of the employees were reassigned to other Xanterra sites around the park (Tent City started with a population of 56) and others have been helping at the company warehouse in Columbia Falls.
Since the fire broke out, Xanterra managers have been allowed to go back into Rising Sun to grab some of the employees’ belongings, including passports. While everyone is curious about what will happen next, most of the folks at Tent City say the evacuation has been a memorable experience. And it offered them a chance to do a few things they may not have been normally able to do. This week they got to go to the Amazing Fun Center and go rafting on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
Jorge Beja is a dining room server from Spain. He said the experience is one he won’t forget and that it’s brought all of the citizens of Tent City together.
“It’s been a memorable experience,” he said. “We’re all a lot closer now.”
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