‘It Was a Miracle:’ Izaak Walton Inn After the Fire

For four nights, the Izaak Walton Inn and all of Essex turned into a ghost town

By ERIN MADISON, Great Falls Tribune
The Sheep Fire burns near Essex on Aug. 20, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

ESSEX — Kayla Suchy had been planning her wedding for a year.

She and her husband, Jason, planned an Aug. 29 wedding at the Izaak Walton Inn. Dinner was going to be prime rib and, after the the festivities, guests were going to head downstairs to the hotel’s bar and play Foosball, a favorite game among her husband’s 10 siblings.

They had booked out the entire inn, and Jason and Kayla were planning to spend their wedding night in one of the Izaak Walton’s railroad cabooses.

About two weeks before the wedding, lightning struck near the inn and a forest fire ignited.

It started out small, maybe 70 acres in size, but was uncomfortably close to the Izaak Walton Inn and the town of Essex.

Over the next few days, the fire grew and moved closer to the historic railroad inn on the edge of Glacier National Park.

Suchy started to worry.

On Aug. 19, the inn went into pre-evacuation status. Suchy was in close touch with the staff. The Monday before her wedding, the fire still was burning, but the inn hadn’t been evacuated. They decided to proceed with the wedding as planned.

Then on the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 27, Suchy got a call saying the Izaak Walton was being evacuated.

The fire had moved to within a mile of the inn. Firefighters determined that about 200 buildings were threatened.

“When I got the call, obviously I was heartbroken,” said Suchy, who lives in Kalispell.

In two days, with the help of the Izaak Walton staff, she completely re-planned her wedding.

Everything fell into place and turned out perfectly, she said.

“It was beautiful,” Suchy said. “It was the best night of my life.”

In addition to rearranging a wedding, staff at the Izaak Walton Inn had to find hotel rooms for 14 guests and places to stay for 24 staff members.

Despite the wrinkle in their vacation plans, the guests were all understanding.

“We didn’t have one disgruntled guest,” said Cristinna Cook, location manager for the Izaak Walton Inn.

Suchy ended up getting married at the Diamond B, a wedding venue with a big red barn outside of Kalispell.

It was a location Suchy had looked at when she started wedding planning.

“It was really hard to get into,” she said.

As it turned out, the wedding planned for that Saturday had been canceled not long before. Suchy was able to claim the spot and the bride who canceled got her deposit back.

“It worked out for everybody,” Suchy said. “It was a miracle.”

You might say the way the fire worked out all around was a miracle.

“It could have been a lot worse and it could have been a lot scarier,” said Holly DuMay, director of sales, marketing and retail for Izaak Walton Companies.

Today, a visitor would have no idea how close the blaze came to the inn.

“You can’t even see there was a fire,” DuMay said. “Essex was completely untouched.”

However, for four nights, the Izaak Walton Inn and all of Essex turned into a ghost town.

The inn that is usually bustling with guests was empty. For a while, even the railroad tracks were closed, a sharp change from hearing a train go by every 45 minutes.

By the time of the evacuation, the inn was ramping down for the season. Some staff members already had returned to college, and few guests were booked at the inn.

“Right around the point of the evacuation, the smoke was pretty bad,” DuMay said.

That had already prompted many guests to cancel their reservation, hence the low number of people staying there.

“We were pretty lucky we didn’t have more than that,” she said.

When the Sheep fire started around Aug. 15, it was 3 to 5 miles from the inn and was immediately declared a high-priority fire because of its proximity to Essex. Fire crews, helicopters and other resources arrived immediately.

“I always had so much confidence in the teams that were working here,” said Marta Clark, administrative assistant for the Izaak Walton. “We could not have been more helped.”

For about a week and a half before the hotel was evacuated, the area was put under a pre-evacuation notice.

As soon as the fire started, the inn was given what is called a “ready-set-go plan,” outlining pre-evacution and evacuation procedures.

“We had about a week and a half on ‘set’ status,” DuMay said.

That meant an evacuation could occur at a moment’s notice, and it wasn’t a surprise when staff members were told they’d have to clear out of the hotel.

“We had that in the back of our minds,” DuMay said. “We were kind of prepared for it.”

During that time, guests were given a letter upon check-in explaining the nearby fire and the possibility of an evacuation.

“We had to prep our guests a little bit,” DuMay said.

Rand Williams and his spouse, were on vacation in Glacier, checked into the hotel two days before it was evacuated.

“We had tracked it (the fire) for like two weeks before we went there,” said Williams, who lives outside Salt Lake City. “They warned us that we may be canceled due to an evacuation order.”

Williams thought about canceling the reservation and staying somewhere else but wanted to stay at the Izaak Walton.

They had a great time. One night they attended a community meeting updating people on the fire.

Williams felt for the nearby residents.

“It just appeared to us that they were a close-knit community,” he said. “They all seemed concerned for each other.”

When Williams checked out Thursday morning, there was about a half inch of ash on his car.

“As we drove out of the area, my spouse read on the Internet that community had been evacuated,” he said. “We felt such a connection; we actually shed tears for this community that touched our hearts in such a short time.”

When the evacuation order came, guests were able to pack up and move surprisingly quickly.

The call came in around 2:40 in the afternoon. By 5 p.m., all the guests were out. Because guests were warned about the possibility of an evacuation, most of them were paying close attention to news about the fire. Even though guests were out hiking, fishing or otherwise going about their vacation, news of the evacuation spread quickly.

By 7 p.m., staff was out of the hotel. Staff arranged for guests to stay at other area hotels.

“We had already reached out to Xantera and GPI (Glacier Park Inc.),” DuMay said. “They had agreed to help us graciously.”

That was a common theme during the fire.

“The community really came out to help us,” DuMay said. “Essex is a pretty old community, pretty tight-knit.”

In turn, the Izaak Walton did what it could to help the firefighters.

The inn’s owner Brian Kelly came to the hotel every day while it was evacuated.

“The first night of the evacuation, he actually served hamburgers to the firefighters,” DuMay said.

He grilled burgers and served them to about 120 firefighters.

“He was trying to use up some of our perishables,” DuMay said.

During the evacuation, Kelly, who used to work as a firefighter in Chicago, cut down some dead trees near the inn and kept a close watch on the historic building.

“He was up here really to protect his inn,” DuMay said. “I can’t say I blame him. We all felt like we wanted to make a chain around the inn.”

The Izaak Walton Inn is full of antique railroad memorabilia and artifacts that harken back to the hotel’s beginnings.

The Izaak Walton was built in 1939 as a hotel for railroad personnel and passengers. It once served as the community’s post office, with post office boxes still lining one wall.

Kelly removed some of the historic artifacts from the hotel, but he couldn’t move the hotel itself.

“The whole hotel is the biggest artifact,” DuMay said. “It’s such a piece of history when you walk in here.”

Kelly also moved the hotel’s computer server. Staff set up a remote office, where they could still field phone calls and take reservations.

It continued to be business as usual, as much as possible, Cook said.

While the fire was burning, past guests and others kept a close eye on what was going on at the Izaak Walton Inn.

“We got phone calls from people who had stayed here for years,” Cook said.

Callers wanted to make sure the hotel was safe. Even people who have only stayed there once, continue to feel connected to the inn, Cook said.

“That’s what this place does to our guests, it leaves a lasting impression,” Cook said.

DuMay posted frequent updates and photos on Facebook. Those photos got hundreds of comments. Some photos were seen by upward of 60,000 people.

“We have so many fans of the inn,” she said.

In addition to guests, hotel staff members, many of whom live on-site in dorms, had to find places to go. Of the 24 staff members, many were able to stay in staff housing at other properties owned by the Izaak Walton Inn. Some were able to stay with friends.

“During the evacuation, my chief job was to make sure the employees got evacuated safely and had a good place to go,” Clark said.

Xanterra took some of the staff that needed a place to stay.

“The other concessionaires were amazing,” Clark said.

During the evacuation, Essex felt deserted.

Clark, who lives nearby, but wasn’t evacuated, held a party and called it the “party at the end of the universe.” That’s what Essex felt like.

“It was incredibly quiet,” she said. “You could just walk around on route 2 like it was your backyard.”

While the rest of the community was deserted, the inn continued to be a hubbub of firefighting activity.

Each morning, firefighters boarded a train at the inn that transported them to the blaze and at the end of the day they rode the train back out. That was the easiest way to reach the fire that was located well away from any roads.

Monday, Aug. 31 at 6 a.m., four days after the evacuation was ordered, it was lifted.

“We had gotten all that rain,” DuMay said. “We expected the evacuation to be a little longer than that.”

That Monday morning turned out to be a bluebird day. DuMay thought it would look like a battleground at the hotel, but instead the grass was green and the flowers were blooming.

“The smoke was out of the valley,” she said. “It was beautiful up here.”

When the staff members arrived, Kelly was serving coffee to the firefighters.

“Getting back in on Monday morning and seeing what it looked like up here, it was definitely a huge sigh of relief,” DuMay said.

By the next day, guests were back at the inn.

“We had guests Tuesday,” DuMay said. “The restaurant opened Thursday.”

The firefighters remained for about two more weeks. Most of them were camped at the nearby KOA, but they continued to catch the train at the inn.

While the inn survived the fire, the blaze and the smoky air did take a toll on the business.

“It definitely affected the business,” DuMay said. “There’s no doubt about it. It affected the park.”

However, Kelly was so glad the inn survived that he offered all of the firefighters a night’s stay at the Izaak Walton next time they visit.

In all, the fire turned out with the best way possible.

“You take a bad experience and make it into a good experience,” she added. “It was definitely an unfortunate event. The positive is it didn’t touch Essex and no one was hurt.”

Suchy’s wedding was wonderful, if not exactly what she planned. For their one-year anniversary, the Suchys already have a caboose booked.

“I’m planning my one-year anniversary at the Izaak,” she said.

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