High Winds Drive Fire Behavior in Glacier Park, Flathead National Forest

As fires grow, management team explains strategies and resource availability to residents at community meetings

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

-Evacuation order issued for Fish Creek Campground in Glacier National Park

-Evacuation warnings issued north of Grist Road, including Apgar

-Howe Ridge Fire grows to 7,835 acres

-Type 1 Incident Management Team takes command of four wildfires burning in Glacier National Park and Flathead National Forest

The 2018 fire season in Northwest Montana is here to stay, at least until the snow flies, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

That was the message this weekend from fire officials managing four prominent blazes in Glacier National Park and on the Flathead National Forest, a sobering reminder of this wildfire season’s intensity, the limited resources available as fires blow up across the West and the amount of hot, dry and gusty weather that remains this summer.

Overnight activity and growth on the Howe Ridge Fire validated the fire forecast as the blaze burning on the north end of Lake McDonald nearly doubled in size to 7,835 acres, while three other fires — the Paola Ridge Fire near Essex, and the Coal Ridge and Whale Butte fires up the North Fork Flathead River — continued to burn with little or no containment.

The growth and intensity of the Howe Ridge Fire, coupled with weather predictions over the next two days that call for increasing winds that could shift directions, heightening the fire’s ability to spread quickly, prompted an evacuation at the Fish Creek Campground on Camas Road, one of the largest campgrounds in the park with 178 sites, and an evacuation warning from the Quarter Circle Bridge Road north. This includes Apgar, the Grist Road, and all areas accessed from Quarter Circle Bridge Road.

“This means people must leave Fish Creek. People in the Apgar or areas accessed from the Quarter Circle Bridge Road area need to be ready to leave but are not being told to leave at this time,” according to a news release from park officials Sunday morning.

“This [weather] could significantly affect fire behavior on the southern and western flanks of the fire,” the release states. “Smoke yesterday over the fire perimeter prohibited air resources from dropping water on the fire.”

The Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team has assigned crews to structures in the Fish Creek Campground area and along the Inside North Fork Road to reduce fuels and set up sprinkler systems, the news release said. Crews also are installing hoses and sprinklers to minimize potential fire spread towards the Going-to-the-Sun Road.

The fire had come within a mile of the road as of Saturday, and fire officials noted the dire consequences of a wildfire burning along the iconic corridor.

“We’re really trying to keep the fire from actually getting to that road,” Rocky Gilbert, operations chief for the Type 1 Incident Management Team, said. “You would be dealing with trees and rocks falling on that road for years to come because of the destabilization.”

The management strategies at all four fires were detailed by a half-dozen fire officials from Glacier National Park, the Flathead National Forest and the Southwest Area Type 1 Incident Management Team, under the command of John Pierson. The updates were delivered Saturday night to more than 100 residents gathered for a community meeting at Columbia Falls High School, where concerns about the fires burning in their backyards ran the gamut, ranging from structure protection to air quality.

Fire managers answered questions patiently, explaining they have a finite amount of resources available and are delegating equipment based on conditions and availability.

They’re also placing firefighter safety at the four of their response plan, particularly given the volume of hazardous trees, such as fire-weakened cedars and hemlocks, burning along the shoreline.

“I was in there for about 45 minutes and I counted a dozen trees that came down,” Travis Mabery of the Type 1 team said. “These are big, shake-the-ground trees. I was on a fire last year when a firefighter lost his life and I am not going to put a firefighter on the ground in those conditions.”

Still, firefighters actively engaged in structure protection, and are using pumps in Lake McDonald to run water through sprinklers and hoselay to “make sure that the structures that were saved stay that way,” Gilbert said.

Pierson, incident commander of the elite Type 1 team, painted a dire picture of the 2018 wildfire season, which has sapped resources across the nation.

“As of this morning, nationally, there are 110 active large fire events across the greater West. Cumulatively up to this point a little more than 5.8 million acres across the country have burned and we probably have five to six more weeks of this. There are 548 crews manning these fires, 1,400 engines, 175 helicopters and 25,000 people scattered throughout the western United States engaged actively with these wildfires. We have 16 Type 1 teams in the nation. Currently, 15 are committed to incidents out here in the West. We don’t have an infinite amount of resources.”

On the Howe, Paola, Coal, and Whale Butte fires, 350 personnel are currently working on suppression and protection efforts, identifying “values at risk” to prioritize their efforts. Meanwhile, heavy smoke has made aerial suppression nearly impossible.

Describing Lake McDonald as like a “catcher’s mitt” capturing wildfire smoke, Gilbert said attempts to deploy Canadian CL-415 planes, or “Super Scoopers,” have been futile due to low visibility.

“Lake McDonald holds smoke like nobody’s business,” he said. “[The pilot] couldn’t even find the fire because there is so much smoke. The ability to use any type of aircraft is very limited.”

Members of the Type 1 team praised the initial attack efforts of local agencies, and said without a carefully planned execution the devastation brought down on Glacier Park by the Howe Ridge Fire could have been many degrees worse.

The Howe Ridge Fire exploded from a small burn on the west side of Lake McDonald into a 2,500-acre inferno on Aug. 12, forcing a large-scale evacuation of the upper Lake McDonald area, including the Lake McDonald Lodge. It was one of 19 wildfire starts born of a lightning storm Aug. 11, thought to be the cause of all four major fires burning in the area.

The Howe Ridge Fire destroyed numerous residences and historic properties along Lake McDonald, including private homes at the Kelly’s Camp Historic District.

Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow said the crushing losses are tragic, but the wildfire’s explosive growth could have had far grimmer consequences.

“We are all very deeply saddened by the losses that we have already suffered over this last week. I have often said that in my 30-year career in the park service I have never worked anywhere where the community and the residents were so connected to the park,” Mow said at the community meeting. “I know how passionate the Kelly’s Camp community is, and when we lose things like that it feels like we have lost a member of the family, and that is very, very hard. But we are thankful that there were no injuries or fatalities associated with the Howe Ridge Fire.

Due in large part to initial attack efforts last weekend, Mow said three other fire starts in Glacier were quickly contained and have shown no growth, unlike the Howe Ridge Fire, which is burning through down and dead forest fuel in a 15-year-old wildfire scar left by the 2003 Robert Fire.

“In first 24 hours, the Howe Ridge Fire clearly exceeded our abilities in our initial attack, as well as the abilities of two scooper planes that were assigned,” Mow said, describing the fire’s otherworldly intensity.

He also warned residents to pay attention to the other fires burning along Glacier’s perimeters.

“Don’t lose sight of the fact that we have several other fires burning outside of the park, all of which have the potential to impact Glacier as well,” he said. “Our opportunities to put out a fire once it has started here at this time of the season is rare. These are fires that we are going to sit with until the snow flies. And our ability to address that is based on resource availability. And as you know resources are scarce right now.”

“At this point in time we are really in the first few minutes of a 60-minute ballgame, and we have to keep our eye on the fact that we have almost 59 minutes to go in this fire season,” Mow added.

Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed between the foot of Lake McDonald and Logan Pass. The Inside North Fork Road and the Fish Creek Road are also closed. The Sun Road is open between St. Mary and Logan Pass on the park’s east side.

Trail and road closures associated with the fire can be found on the park’s website www.nps.gov/glac.

Glacier National Park and most of western Montana remain under Stage II Fire Restrictions. No campfires will be permitted in Glacier’s front-country or backcountry. Smoking is also prohibited except within an enclosed building, vehicle, developed recreation area, or barren area three feet in diameter. Propane stoves that have an on/off switch are permitted.

For a recorded fire update, call (406) 888-7077.

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