Eight months after the Howe Ridge Fire scorched more than 14,000 acres along the shores of Lake McDonald — and taking with it numerous historic structures — Glacier National Park is preparing for a busy spring of work in the burn area.
This spring, the National Park Service is restoring telephone service along North McDonald Road and extending electric service to Kelly Camp. Previously, the camp area had to produce its own electricity with water-powered generators. The Park Service is also installing new culverts along North McDonald Road and the Inside North Fork Road to handle additional water that will flow from the burn area.
Dawn LaFleur, Glacier’s Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) coordinator, said the improvements made this spring would pave the way for homeowners to start rebuilding this coming season.
After an intense wildfire, it is not uncommon for the ground to hold less water, resulting in an increase of spring runoff. To handle the additional water flowing from the mountains down to Lake McDonald, the Park Service plans on replacing seven culverts along Lake McDonald that were either destroyed in the fire or deemed too small. The old culverts were 8 inches in diameter, while the new ones will be 24 inches. The Park Service will also install a culvert at a new location.
“We want to be able to accommodate the increase in debris that could flow from that hillside,” LaFleur said.
Although officials are expecting increased water and debris flow, LaFleur said they are less concerned about the potential for mudslides.
This summer, Glacier employees will also be rebuilding a number of hiking trails in the area. Wooden culverts will need to be rebuilt and trail surfaces will be restored. A number of wood-plank bridges will also have to be rebuilt.
The Park Service is currently seeking comment from the public on its plan to restore electricity and phone service along the northwest corner of the lake. The current plan calls for Flathead Electric Cooperative to install 13,000 feet of power cables and phone infrastructure along North McDonald Road. The vast majority of the lines will be buried in the ditch along the road. The public can review the proposal online (https://parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?parkId=61&projectID=86663) and submit comment until April 1.
The Park Service will also be cleaning up the remains of a number of historic structures owned by the federal government and destroyed by the fire, including three structures at Kelly Camp and five buildings at the Wheeler Camp site. The historic Wheeler Cabin, once owned by U.S. Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, caught fire but was ultimately saved. However, a number of support structures around the building were lost.
Sierra Mandelko, cultural resources specialist and archeologist for the park, said recent work that took place at Kelly Camp and the Wheeler Cabin means the Park Service has extensive documentation of what the buildings looked like prior to the fire. This spring, Park Service employees will work to clean up the foundations of the destroyed buildings and stabilize what remains. It will also work to dissolve the historic district designation for Kelly Camp and the Wheeler property, although the Wheeler cabin itself will remain on the National Register of Historic Places. The Park Service made a similar request to dissolve an historic district when the Polebridge Ranger Station was destroyed in the 1988 Red Bench Fire. Mandelko said the dissolution of the district would facilitate future development on those properties.