News & Features

‘It Was a Gut Punch’: Independent Review of Sprague Fire Details Sperry Chalet’s Final Hours

Investigators recommend firefighters receive additional structure protection training, including how to install sprinkler systems

At approximately 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 31, 2017, four firefighters and a National Park Service maintenance employee gathered in the shadow of the Sperry Chalet dormitory.

Over the previous three hours, the five people had doused hundreds of spot fires around the century-old chalet sparked by embers from the nearby Sprague Fire, which had been tormenting the west side of Glacier National Park for more than three weeks. While the air was still thick with smoke, the nearby fire appeared to be calming, and the firefighters tasked with protecting one of Glacier’s most beloved historic structures thought they had accomplished their mission.

“It felt like we may have been successful and the worst was over,” one of the firefighters told an independent investigator later.

Little did the firefighters know that in the next few minutes, after they had all gone back to dousing spot fires, an ember would sneak into the chalet. At 6 p.m., one of the firefighters noticed smoke coming out of a second-story window. A few minutes later, flames were leaping out of the window; within an hour, the 104-year-old chalet had been reduced to rubble.

“It was a gut punch,” one of the firefighters said. “For the past two hours we had worked hard and felt like we were going to be successful.”

On June 21, 10 months after the Sperry Chalet was destroyed, the National Park Service released an extensive independent investigation into how the historic chalet was lost last summer. The document provides intimate details of the beloved structure’s final hours, as well as recommendations for what firefighters can do in the future to protect historic structures from wildfires in national parks.

“We will use what we learned from the loss of this iconic structure to improve where we can safely do so,” stated National Park Service Fire Director Dan Buckley in a press release issued with the report. “The action items resulting from the investigation and review will inform us for managing risk in future similar situations.”

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke ordered an independent review of the fire that destroyed Sperry soon after it burned on Aug. 31. Within weeks, investigators were at Sperry combing through the remains and interviewing the firefighters who tried to save it.

According to a detailed timeline in the report, the lightning-caused Sprague Fire started at approximately 8:36 p.m. on Aug. 10. Early on, after assessing the fire from the air and ground, fire managers believed they could contain the blaze, which by Aug. 12 had only scorched about 23 acres, with two Type 1 hotshot fire crews. At the time, there were more than 80 fires raging across the West, many of them threatening homes and lives, and 75 unfulfilled orders for Type 1 and Type 2 fire crews. Glacier Park officials closed off a large section of land around the blaze and quickly hatched a plan to fight the fire from the air, mostly with helicopters when they were available.

As part of the closure, the Sperry Chalet was evacuated on Aug. 11. On Aug. 14, fire officials identified the Sperry Chalet and Mount Brown Fire Lookout as “primary values at risk” of being impacted by the fire. On Aug. 16, six firefighters wrapped the lookout with fire-resistant material. That same day, another crew flew to the Sperry Chalet to start laying water hoses and install a sprinkler system on the dormitory and other nearby buildings. They also installed fire-resistant material on the wooden deck and first story of the dormitory.

Because the chalet was located on a rocky outcrop, fire managers believed it was unlikely the fire would move toward the building as a front, and that spot fires from hot embers were the bigger threat.

Although some members of the public wondered why the lookout was completely wrapped and not the chalet, the report’s authors noted that wrapping Sperry would have been unsafe and ineffective. In fact, because of the building’s many irregular shapes, wrapping it could have made the situation worse.

“Wrapping some of those areas could create additional pockets where embers could become trapped and negate the effort of wrapping,” officials wrote.

Throughout the second half of August, the Sprague Fire continued to grow in the hills east of Lake McDonald. On Aug. 16, a Type 3 incident management team was assigned to the blaze and more resources started to arrive.

On Aug. 31, the fire had burned 2,095 acres and was slowly inching toward Sperry. A forecast of gusty winds and low humidity had fire managers on edge, and “the (division supervisor) was expecting the Sperry Chalet to be impacted by fire that day,” according to the report.

Five people — four firefighters and one maintenance employee — were stationed at Sperry when fire activity, fueled by winds of 25 to 30 miles per hour, began to increase at 2:30 p.m. Over the next three hours, the firefighters battled “hundreds” of spot fires.

At 3:30 p.m., one of the firefighters noticed smoke coming from the corner of the roof on the Dining Hall. The firefighter told a colleague to “bring a Pulaski” and they approached the building. With the Pulaski, the firefighters pulled a “rat’s nest size pile” of burning debris from under the eave of the roof and quickly extinguished it.

Two hours later, with fire activity starting to slow and the number of spot fires decreasing, the firefighters regrouped near the Sperry dormitory. After discussing their situation for a few minutes, the firefighters split up again; some continued to patrol the area for spot fires while others sprayed water on buildings, including the dormitory.

At 6 p.m., one of the firefighters noticed smoke coming from a second-story window and radioed for backup. While one firefighter sprayed the dormitory with water, two others tried to go inside the building to see if they could fight the fire from within. The firefighters approached the building and opened a door to find smoke filling the entire structure.

“(It was) terrible brown smoke,” one of the firefighters said later. “It was so thick you could barely see your hands in front of you.”

The two firefighters tried to walk into the building but quickly retreated. The firefighters looked for another way in but were again halted by the smoke.

“Within approximately five minutes, flames could be seen coming from the window of the dormer (a window that projects from a sloped roof),” the report states. “Fueled by the heavy timbers, wooden walls and ceilings, the fire grew rapidly with flames reaching the underside of the dormer and extending to the roof shingles within minutes. Over the next hour, the fire continued to grow in size and intensity, consuming the majority of combustible materials in the building’s south half.”

In the mid-1990s, a fire-resistant wall designed to withstand fire for one hour was installed in the middle of the chalet. As the fire burned on the south side of the building, the fire-resistant wall eventually failed and flames engulfed the north half of the structure as well.

Once the fire spread to the north end of the structure, the fire crew supervisor at Sperry radioed fire managers back at camp to inform them that the Sperry dormitory was “a total loss.”

Fueled by winds and extremely dry conditions, the Sprague Fire had grown from 2,095 acres to 4,646 acres on Aug. 31.

One of the firefighters at Sperry later called it “the most intense direct firefighting experience” of his life.

Fire investigators found that the steps taken to protect Sperry in the days before Aug. 31 had been appropriate, although there were numerous lessons that emerged from the ashes of Sperry.

One lesson was for park officials in communicating to the public the risk the fire posed to Sperry. Prior to the chalet burning, park officials announced that the chalet was “well protected,” which investigators believe probably gave the public a false sense of the situation at hand.

“There was no mention of the fact that despite taking solid measures to protect the values at risk there are no guarantees firefighters will be able to successfully protect every structure,” the report states.

The report’s authors also recommend that wildland firefighters receive additional training in dealing with structure fires and how to install sprinkler systems atop buildings. Although sprinklers were installed on the Sperry Chalet dormitory, only the NPS building maintenance employee at Sperry had been trained to safely go on the roof. That type of training is especially important, the report’s authors concluded, as “more parks are experiencing larger wildfires and more historic structures are at risk.”

The report also recommends that the National Park Service dedicate more resources to helping firefighters deal with the aftermath a major incident. Following the loss of Sperry, only one firefighter was formally debriefed on the incident, yet all five people assigned to the blaze reportedly felt “despair” for having lost the building.

Glacier Park Superintendent Jeff Mow praised the authors of the report as well as the firefighters stationed at Sperry who saved the buildings surrounding the dormitory, including the Dining Hall.

“We now turn our attention to restoring the Sperry Chalet experience for the next 100 years,” Mow said.

Earlier this month, the National Park Service allocated $12 million to rebuild the history Sperry Chalet dormitory. Construction is expected to begin this summer.

If you enjoy stories like this one, please consider joining the Flathead Beacon Editor’s Club. For as little as $5 per month, Editor’s Club members support independent local journalism and earn a pipeline to Beacon journalists. Members also gain access to www.beaconeditorsclub.com, where they will find exclusive content like deep dives into our biggest stories and a behind-the-scenes look at our newsroom.