Multiple Structures Lost to Glacier Park Wildfire

Howe Ridge Fire forced evacuation of Lake McDonald area late Sunday; Stage II fire restrictions to be implemented tonight

By Justin Franz
The Howe Ridge Fire burning near Lake McDonald on Aug. 12, 2018. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

This story was last updated on Aug. 13. Click here for the latest wildfire news from Northwest Montana.

—Howe Ridge Fire forces evacuation of Lake McDonald Lodge area 

Park officials tell landowners “many homes” have been lost

—Stage II fire restrictions to be implemented in the park tonight

LAKE MCDONALD — The Howe Ridge Fire started Sunday as a small fire smoldering on a hillside overlooking Lake McDonald.

By nightfall it had become a massive inferno spewing smoke and flames hundreds of feet into the air and forcing the evacuation of a section of Glacier National Park.

Glacier National Park officials are still trying to determine the extent of the destruction on Monday. Firefighters estimated the fire is between 1,500 and 2,500 acres and that it destroyed multiple homes and historic structures. The Going-to-the-Sun Road from the foot of Lake McDonald to Logan Pass is closed; the Lake McDonald Lodge complex has been evacuated, along with numerous cabins and campgrounds. The Sprague Campground will be evacuated later today.

Due to extremely dry conditions in the park, Stage II fire restrictions are being implemented at 12 a.m. Tuesday. Campfires and smoking outside will be prohibited.

The Howe Ridge Fire was one of three fires that started following a lightning storm on the evening of Aug. 11. The following morning, it was estimated to be about 5 acres and burning in the scar of the 2003 Roberts Fire. Two CL-215 “Super Scooper” planes were dispatched to the fire on Sunday morning and spent four hours dropping water on the fire. Unfortunately, due to windy conditions, the two planes were not able to fly low enough to drop water directly on the fire. As the afternoon wore on, the fire continued to smolder along Howe Ridge.

A Type I incident management team was ordered mid-day to manage the Howe Ridge Fire as well as two fires on the Flathead National Forest: the Paola Creek Fire near Essex and the Coal Ridge Fire west of Polebridge. That order is still in place as of Monday morning.

Late Sunday afternoon, the Howe Ridge Fire began to display “extreme fire behavior” as it burned toward the edge of Lake McDonald near the Kelly’s Camp Historic District. The smoke from the fire towered over the lake and then shifted north, sending embers toward Stanton Mountain and other more populated areas of the park. Spot fires were discovered a half-mile away from the main fire and in one instance, a spot fire was discovered on the opposite side of Stanton Mountain. The decision was made to evacuate the north end of Lake McDonald shortly before 8 p.m.

Over the next two hours, 87 area campsites, 82 rooms at the Lake McDonald Lodge and dozens of other visitors, employees and local residents were evacuated. A park ranger was stationed on the Sun Road at the Lake McDonald Lodge telling people to turn around and leave the area. As ash-laden smoke blocked out the evening sky, firefighters drove along the road telling people who were watching the fire to immediately leave the area. As a stream of visitors left the park, fire crews sped north toward the blaze hoping to protect a number of structures threatened by the fire.

In an email obtained by the Beacon, Glacier National Park officials told landowners along the lake that, “many homes and other structures were lost on North McDonald Road.” Park officials were taking photos of the impacted buildings so landowners could see what was left of their homes. Spokesperson Lauren Alley said as of early Monday afternoon it was still unknown exactly how many buildings were lost.

Today, firefighters are focusing their efforts on protecting the surviving structures along North McDonald Road as well as the nearby Lake McDonald Lodge. About 60 firefighters have been assigned to the fire.

Sunday night’s evacuation marks the second time in less than a year that the upper Lake McDonald area has been evacuated. In August 2017, the Sprague Fire — which eventually destroyed the Sperry Chalet — forced the evacuation of the Lake McDonald Lodge and closure of the Going-to-the-Sun Road for weeks.

The fire was calm Monday morning, but officials expected that to change in the afternoon. Additional firefighters and heavy equipment were brought into the area Monday to try stopping the blaze from spreading further north. Firefighter and visitor safety are top priorities for park officials.

On Monday, firefighters spent the day establishing “trigger points” that could prompt additional evacuations in the park. Firefighters are also actively trying to suppress the Numa Ridge Fire near Polebridge and the Heaven’s Sake Fire near Heaven’s Peak.

Wildfire has long played an important role on the landscape of Glacier National Park and the last four years have seen a number of dramatic fires there. In July 2015, the Reynolds Creek Fire burned 4,800 acres near St. Mary. The following month, the Thompson Fire torched nearly 20,000 acres north of Nyack. In 2017, the Sprague Fire burned more than 16,000 acres and destroyed the historic Sperry Chalet.

Much of the park remains open today. Click here to see what is open and what is closed in Glacier National Park.


New Wildfires Grow Across Northwest Montana

At least two new fires were discovered on the Flathead National Forest over the weekend following Saturday’s lightning storm.

The Coal Ridge Fire has burned 300 acres about 5 miles west of Polebridge as of Monday morning. A Type 3 incident management team has been assigned to the fire and additional resources are being brought to the area. No structures are at risk at this time.

The Paola Ridge Fire is burning 2 miles northwest of Essex and as of Monday morning has torched 250 acres. Four firefighters, one engine and one heavy equipment task force has been assigned to the fire. Firefighters plan on building a firebreak along the south side of the BNSF Railway tracks to prevent the fire from impacting the railroad and nearby U.S. Highway 2. There are no evacuation orders at this time, but a number of trails are closed.

The Brownstone Fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness has burned more than 1,600 acres since it was first reported on Aug. 2.

The Flathead National Forest will be implementing State II fire restrictions on Thursday at 12:01 a.m. The Flathead County Commission is expected to vote on whether or not to implement fire restrictions on Tuesday at 10 a.m.

Further west, firefighters are also dealing with a number of wildfires on the Kooteani National Forest. As of Monday morning, the Davis Fire near Yaak had burned 5,479 acres and was 5 percent contained. Over the weekend, the fire crossed into British Columbia where Canadian firefighters are trying to stop it from continuing north.

Firefighters are also battling a number of fires east of Lake Koocanusa. The Ten Mile Fire had burned 679 acres as of Monday morning and was 30 percent contained. Nearby, the Pinkham Tower Fire had burned 333 acres and the Huckleberry/Cliff Fire had burned 211 acres. A number of trail and area closures were in effect across the Kootenai National Forest.

Firefighters on the Flathead Indian Reservation were making gains against the Garden Creek Fire, which as of Monday had torched 2,052 acres and was 20 percent contained. Firefighters are working on reinforcing their containment lines today.

Smoke from fires in Northwest Montana and across the Pacific Northwest is continuing to fill the Flathead Valley. As of 2 p.m., air quality in Kalispell was “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” meaning people with respiratory issues, the elderly and children should limit prolonged exertion outside. In Libby, air quality was “unhealthy” meaning the elderly and children should avoid any outdoor activity.

This story will be updated when additional information becomes available.