It all began with an unremarkable little spark.
It ended with a wall a fire roaring across three mountain ranges and a river in just two days, leaving more than 100,000 acres of destruction in its wake.
Wildfires have always played an important role on the landscape of the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park. But few individual blazes have left a scar as outsized as the Half Moon Fire of 1929.
On Aug. 15, 1929, a State Lumber Company crew was loading logs onto a railroad flatcar with a steam-powered winch. A few days earlier, the crew at Camp 4 near Half Moon, east of Columbia Falls, had run out of oil for the winch, also known as a “steam donkey,” and started burning wood so they didn’t fall behind in their work. As the winch labored to load the cars bound for market, a spark from the boiler was picked up by the wind and wafted toward the brush. It smoldered for a while until mid-afternoon, when it ignited the grass and quickly spread. At 4:40 p.m., a nearby fire lookout spotted smoke.
There is some confusion over the initial response. Some have said local mill workers went out as soon as they saw smoke, but the fire quickly escaped their grip. Others have said the mill workers were uninterested in battling the growing blaze because they were paid more when they were cutting and loading logs. What isn’t in dispute is that the area around Half Moon and Columbia Falls was ripe for fire.
According to a report prepared for the National Park Service after the fire, massive amounts of slash and dead timber had accumulated on the north end of the valley following years of logging operations. The situation had gotten so bad that local officials had considered digging fire lines around some of the biggest slash piles, but no one got around to it before the hot summer of 1929.
The following morning, the fire was burning out of control and heading east after scorching 200 acres. About 100 firefighters spent most of Saturday, Aug. 17 trying to keep the flames at bay, but that night it made another run east and north. Over the next few days, the fire continued to push into Glacier National Park, at one point traveling more than 30 miles in just 48 hours. As it approached West Glacier, park officials and local residents prepared for the worst.
While Glacier National Park had been established 19 years earlier, the west side of the park was still a primitive and remote outpost. Back then most visitors entered the park on the east side, where the Great Northern Railway had built a number of large hotels. In the 1920s, it was still possible to purchase a piece of lakefront property around Apgar for just $10.
Betty Lou Sibley Hines lived along Lake McDonald and was 13 years old when the Half Moon Fire hit Glacier. She recalled the hectic days before and after the blaze years later in a letter. “It was real smokey (sic) all around, but it didn’t smell very smokey,” she recalled. “But the sun was very odd — bright red.”
As the fire approached on Aug. 20, Hines’ parents found creative ways to protect their belongings. Her father dug a long trench in the garden and lined it with old blankets before burying his guns and the family relics. When the trench was full, he filled a huge canvas bag with clothing and other possessions and tried to anchor it to the bottom of the lake just offshore. Unfortunately, the bag floated back to the surface and was engulfed in flames after a burning ember landed on it. As the fire inched closer, the women and children got into a boat off the dock and bedded down, with instructions to cut the lines and head for the middle of the lake if the fire got too close. Back on the shore, other landowners filled buckets of water and tried to put out the embers that were raining down on their homes.
On the night of Aug. 20, Glacier Park officials started moving records and important documents from the headquarters into two waiting boxcars. At 3 a.m., a Great Northern steam locomotive pulled the cars east to safety. By then, hundreds of firefighters had descended on West Glacier, most of whom were ordered to protect park headquarters, much to the chagrin of landowners along Lake McDonald. Fire control expert J.D. Coffman later defended that decision, writing, “If Park headquarters had burned, the work of the park organization would have been largely paralyzed, for it would have wiped out the telephone system, the warehouse, the fire cache, the mess hall and the machine shop, all of which were so vital to the success of the firefighting campaign.”
On Aug. 21, 38 firefighters headed west along the Middle Fork Flathead River in hopes of stopping the fire from crossing into the park. But that afternoon, the wind-driven blaze started to throw embers across the river, and the group, led by Ranger C.E. Willey, waded across the river to start putting out spot fires. But the spot fires grew, surrounding Willey and his men. They retreated back to headquarters.
The fire moved north to Lake McDonald, destroying many homes along the way. As it approached, residents rushed to West Glacier to board a train carrying them to safety. Some stayed behind to try to save their homes, including Gus Aubert.
“Gus was still pouring water on smoldering embers around his cabin (the morning after the fire) and his pants, held up by stout suspenders, appeared even more loose around him than usual,” Horace Chadbourne recalled in a written account. “In telling me about his fight to save his cabin he pulled his pants out to show how loose they were. He said: ‘During the worst of it the sparks were falling so thick that when I’d be running with a bucket of water to throw on the roof, the sparks would get down inside my pants and I’d have to stop and dig them out before they burned me.’”
The fire continued to burn into September. In the end, it scorched 103,400 acres, mostly in Glacier National Park. It took more than 1,000 firefighters and cost $103,000 to corral the blaze (a document in the University of Montana Mansfield Library collection has records of every expense, from the $6,358.96 it cost to move firefighters on the railroad to the 1,475 cans of sardines the firefighters consumed).
But the Half Moon Fire’s lessons were even greater than its bills. Bigfork resident Rick Trembath, a member of the Flathead hotshot crew beginning in 1967 and a local fire historian, said the Half Moon Fire was an eye-opener for residents across Northwest Montana who saw it ravage the landscape. It created a newfound respect for wildfire and prompted residents to prepare themselves for summer’s siege.
“Once you’ve seen a wildfire like the 1929 Half Moon, folks know what to expect and what to prepare for,” he said. “Today there are not a lot of folks like that who can really appreciate what fire can do.”
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