An arsonist or arsonists apparently made their way along Inside North Fork Road late on the night of July 22, attempting to set a series of small fires before one blaze leveled a historic patrol cabin, a crime spree that remains unsolved and continues to puzzle residents of the remote area in Glacier National Park.
The loosely defined North Fork, which draws its name from the North Fork Flathead River that runs through the area, centers around the tiny outpost of Polebridge, about an hour’s drive north of Columbia Falls. Bill Walker, who has owned property about three miles north of Polebridge since the mid-1980s and who serves as the board president for the North Fork Landowners Association, said he and his fellow residents are well acquainted with fire since the heavily forested area is vulnerable during wildfire season. But Walker said confronting an arsonist is an altogether different challenge.
“A firebug, an arsonist, is an existential threat up here,” Walker said. “We are used to dealing with fire and we are used to, in many cases, being the first on scene to deal with it. As scary as (fire) might be some places, we take that arsonist pretty darn seriously.”
The string of fires were set overnight between July 22 and 23 and were first discovered by a North Fork resident who woke up rangers at the Polebridge Ranger Station early on the morning of July 23. Investigators believe the eight fires were all intentionally set, and while seven of the eight did little to no damage, one burned the Ford Creek Cabin to the ground. The cabin was built in 1928 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It had been used for winter backcountry patrols in the area.
In the weeks since the fires, officials from Glacier Park, the National Park Service Investigative Services Branch and FBI have been investigating. They had offered no updates on their progress as of Aug. 10 but park officials say the investigation is still active. No one has been charged in connection to the fires.
Walker, meanwhile, said the arsons aren’t the only notable change in the area this summer. Walker has watched the North Fork buzz with activity in recent months, a change for residents who largely take up residence in the area in search of peace and quiet. As visitation at Glacier Park has surged to record levels in recent years, traffic in the North Fork has boomed as well, and it has spiked this year as the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor clogs amid the closure of the park’s eastern entrances by order of the Blackfeet Nation in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. The crowds, the arsons and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Walker said, have all contributed to a slightly more uneasy feeling in the remote community, but not enough to spoil the mood.
“I don’t think very many people are spending a lot of time worrying about it,” he said. “People know, this time of year, to keep a wary eye cocked. They’re pretty resilient up here. People are cautious, maybe a little more than they would be, but it’s not having a huge effect.”
The NFLA is coordinating a $10,000 reward for information on the person or persons responsible for the fires. Anyone with information is asked to contact Flathead Crimestoppers at (406) 752-8477 or to call the Glacier Park tip line at (406) 888-7077. All calls can be made anonymously.