‘Lessons Learned’ Video Details Initial Response to Howe Ridge Fire

Last year’s blaze in Glacier National Park destroyed private homes and historic structures

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

The National Park Service on Thursday released a video documenting the first 36 hours of the Howe Ridge Fire, which destroyed homes and multiple structures when it blew up above the north shore of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park last August.

The video documents the steps firefighters took to attack the wildland fire, and details the combination of factors that made the initial attack unsuccessful. The video also documents evacuation and structural firefighting efforts, and captures the perspectives of experienced firefighters who were stunned by the fire’s forceful and erratic behavior.

“This is something that was off the charts,” Kyle Johnson, the former chief park ranger, said in the video.

According to National Park Service officials, the goal of the video is to share the efforts and raise awareness about the incident to other public land management agencies, people who visit and recreate on public lands and residents who live in wildland fire prone areas.

The Howe Ridge Fire was one of three fires that started following a lightning storm on the evening of Aug. 11, 2018. 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 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.

Late that afternoon, however, 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, officials evacuated 87 area campsites, 82 rooms at the Lake McDonald Lodge and removed dozens of other visitors, employees and local residents. 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.

However, numerous buildings were lost, including 13 private homes whose ownership pre-dates the establishment of Glacier National Park.

According to the video, firefighters and officials were caught by surprise at the rate at which the fire exploded and weren’t prepared for its rapid growth and unpredictability. Their expectations of the fire’s behavior was tempered because the blaze was burning in the scar of the 2003 Roberts Fire.

“In no case did we think that it was going to be a fuel type that was going to run 1,000 acres in a couple hours,” said one firefighter who took part in the initial response.

“August 12 was one of the most challenging and heartbreaking nights in Glacier’s history,” Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said. “Words cannot do justice the thanks we give to our local county, state, and federal firefighting partners who arrived the night of August 12 in our time of great need.”

He continued: “While 2018 fire recovery efforts are well underway for both the park and private homeowners, we can’t lose sight of future fire seasons. These events and others we have seen throughout the West show us that we must continue fuels mitigation efforts, strengthen our wildland fire response capabilities, and as residents and visitors in this forested region, enhance our own personal firewise and evacuation strategies.”

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