Investigators: Firefighters needed more ‘tools’ in defense of Sperry Chalet

Built in 1913, Sperry Chalet’s dormitory was a National Historic Landmark. It was destroyed in an ember storm last Aug. 31, and will be rebuilt beginning this July. (National Park Service)

The four firefighters assigned to Sperry Chalet the night it burned in an ember storm were traumatized by the historic building’s loss, with one describing it as a “gut punch” in an interview with investigators.

But they were up against long odds: a remote site, the chalet’s perch at the top of a natural chimney, too few resources, no training in structural firefighting, no ability to shelter-wrap a tall building, multiple buildings to defend, and wholly unrealistic public expectations.

“The risk to Sperry Chalet was underestimated,” one resource adviser said after the fire. “There was so much lead time that confidence was high in regards to being able to defend it.”

Here’s what the reality looked like:

Aided by a Glacier National Park maintenance worker, the small fire crew knocked down hundreds of spot fires after strong winds sent an hours-long flurry of embers into the Sperry complex last Aug. 31, according to a National Park Service investigation released Thursday.

Two buildings caught fire – starting with Sperry’s dining hall at about 3:30 p.m. Firefighters saw the smoke and within a minute were tearing into the eave with a pulaski. They found a rat’s nest-size pile of burning debris and pulled it free of the building.

At 5:30 p.m., after chasing dozens more spot fires in the complex, the five-member crew sensed a lull and regrouped near the dormitory.

“It felt like we may have been successful and the worst was over,” said one of the firefighters in a later interview with investigators.

They agreed to continue patrolling their assigned zones and one of the firefighters resumed using a hose to wet the side of the chalet most exposed to the embers shooting up the drainage.

Between 5:50 and 6 p.m., the firefighter saw smoke coming from under an eave on Sperry Chalet’s second story in an area framed with large timbers and intricate wooden dormers.

As the firefighter continued to spray water at the eave, two others plus the maintenance employee attempted to enter the dormitory, first on one side, then on the other.

Thick smoke prevented them from entering the building more than a few steps, according to the investigative report. Wildland firefighters do not carry personal protective equipment that would allow them to access a burning building, and are not trained to fight fires from inside buildings.

(In fact, investigators scolded the firefighters for taking even one step into Sperry Chalet, given their lack of structural fire training.)

By 6:15, flames were shooting from the window of Room 15 and the crew knew nothing could be done to save the building. Nothing was left but the stone masonry walls by 3 a.m. on Sept. 1.

“Firefighters felt despair at the loss of the dormitory,” investigators wrote. “One firefighter remarked during his interview, ‘It was a gut punch. For the past two hours we had worked hard and felt like we were going to be successful.’ ”

The Sprague fire left little to salvage inside the massive two-story Sperry Chalet dormitory. (glacier.org)

Sperry Chalet was “defensible,” but it was also “highly ignitable,” said the investigative team headed by Miranda Stuart, a fire management specialist for the National Park Service.

In the end, it only took one ember finding entry to the chalet by way of gaps between the stone walls and wooden support timbers.

And while hindsight provided several recommendations for how the National Park Service should approach the defense of historic backcountry buildings in the future, investigators repeatedly emphasized that assurances given the public during the Sprague fire’s three-week advance toward Sperry Chalet should have been less optimistic.

“The structural protection at Sperry Chalet was reasonable from a wildland fire management perspective,” said the 42-page Facilitated Learning Analysis released Thursday. “It provided both defensible space and the ability to defend the structures from flames and embers; however, the difficult situation firefighters faced on Aug. 31 was inherent in the design and location of the dormitory and dining hall.

“These historic structures, even ones with stone walls, were not built to reduce the structure’s ignition potential from wildfire embers. They were located to provide the guests with a view of the valley below.

“The unintended consequence of the Sperry Chalet’s location is that it placed the dining hall and dormitory in direct alignment with embers from the Sprague wildfire.”

Nevertheless, prior to Sperry Chalet’s destruction, there was “a lot of emphasis on the park social media page, and in public meetings, about how well protected the structures were,” investigators said.

“Firefighters are commonly portrayed as heroes, here to protect life and property,” investigators wrote in their first conclusion. “This has contributed to a cultural expectation that there will be no acceptable losses. This is not a safe or realistic expectation.”

“The messaging issued prior to the burning of the dormitory appears to have given an indication to the public there were fail-safe protections in place and the entire Sperry Chalet Complex would be saved no matter what during the fire event,” the investigation report said.

That was simply not true or even possible, given the chalet’s remoteness, the lack of firefighting resources available to Glacier Park, the weather conditions and the chalet’s perch at the top of a natural chimney – geography that led the fire directly to the 120-year-old dormitory.

Work will begin in July to restore Sperry Chalet’s dormitory to its historic look and feel. (National Park Service)

Investigators uncovered a number of shortcomings in Sperry Chalet’s protection, some of which could have been avoided, some of which were unavoidable given its location.

Retardant aircraft, for example, could have helped dampen or slow the ember storm, but could not be used in the glacial cirque that is home to Sperry Chalet and its associated buildings.

“The terrain alone would make effective retardant drops extremely difficult and dangerous to the pilots,” investigators said. “The smoke that blanketed Sperry causing very low visibility coupled with 20-30 mile per hour winds, made retardant drops unrealistic and unsafe.”

The chalet also was not fully wrapped in protective shelter wrap, as were the Mount Brown Lookout and other structures in the path of the Sprague fire.

Here’s why:

Wildland firefighters are not trained in fall protection, a necessity to negotiate the two-story dormitory’s steep-pitched shingle roof, the report said.

They could only wrap the chalet’s lower reaches – where no climbing was required. Those areas did not provide access to the embers that flew into the complex on Aug. 31.

That lack of training also meant the four firefighters assigned to Sperry could not go on the roof to install a sprinkler system. So that duty fell to the maintenance worker, who expressed misgivings about the steep pitch but went anyway. He was not, however, trained in the placement of sprinkler systems for structural fire protection.

In fact, no one on the crew had training in the roof “collapse zones” that put firefighters at risk during structure fires.

The investigators’ recommendation: Provide more training for wildland firefighters so they can effectively use all the tools available for protecting historic buildings.

“Specific NPS wildland firefighters (should) receive training in fall protection to supplement S-215 training,” the report said. “Focus for this training could be for parks with remote, high-risk historic structures.”

In addition, the Park Service “should consider enhanced training for wildland firefighters, especially wildland fire modules, assigned to protect structures from wildfires. Enhanced training should include, but not be limited to: effective structure wrapping, implementing water systems, and collapse zones.”

Also problematic during the weeks preceding Sperry Chalet’s destruction – the Sprague fire was ignited by lightning on Aug. 10 – was the incorrect belief by firefighters that they could not cut any green trees in or around the Sperry complex.

“Leadership believed clear direction was given allowing for the necessary removal of trees; resources on the ground believed they were not permitted to cut trees and clear the area of the complex,” investigators said. “There was misunderstanding in communication and leader intent from the highest level at the park, through the teams, down to the resources on the ground at the complex.”

They added: “While this did not contribute to the loss of the Sperry dormitory, it did complicate the ability of the resources on the ground to meet their desired end state in terms of protection efforts. Further reduction of fuels adjacent to the structures would have created a more manageable situation and safer situation for the firefighters.”

Investigators found one potential disaster in the fire’s aftermath: Twelve propane tanks were stored under the dining hall in an area hidden from sight by protective fire wrap.

So when that building caught fire earlier in the afternoon on Aug. 31, firefighters did not know they were working on a building with an active explosion risk.

“Had crews not been able to suppress the fire in the dining hall, then a major life safety hazard existed,” investigators wrote. “Consider if the dining hall had become fully involved and the propane tank BLEVEs (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions); this could have been a significant threat to firefighter safety.”

In fact, after Sperry Chalet was evacuated earlier in August, full propane tanks for the concession were flown into Sperry along with firefighting equipment “because this is routine,” the report said. “The tanks being cached is a part of closing procedures.”

The National Park Service delegated the review and investigation of the fire at Sperry Chalet to an independent team of six interagency fire experts in September 2017.

The primary goal of the investigation was to determine the dormitory fire’s cause, while the review was to understand the decisions made based on the conditions that existed, and to identify and share lessons learned within both the National Park Service and interagency fire community.

The review report and fire investigation are located on the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned website.