Glacier National Park: ‘Heartbreaking’ losses at historic camps on Lake McDonald

The 90-year-old wooden tour boat DeSmet was taken onto the water during the firestorm by its owner in an attempt to keep it away from the flying embers. (Eric Matt via Facebook)

More than a dozen historic and much-loved buildings on the north shore of Lake McDonald were lost in a firestorm, Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow reported Tuesday.

Some predated the designation of the park itself. Some had been in families for many generations. All were a significant piece of Glacier’s history and traditions.

This is a heartbreaking time at the park,” Mow said in releasing the first details about the structures lost when the Howe Ridge fire made a wind-driven run from 20 acres to 2,500 on Sunday night.

“We’ve lost extremely important historic buildings that tell a piece of the park’s story, and multiple people have lost homes that have welcomed their families to the shores of Lake McDonald for generations,” Mow said.

Here is the park’s initial accounting of buildings, public and private, lost in the blowup. Only through the “valiant” efforts of structural firefighters from Flathead County were several others saved after they caught fire, including the Lake McDonald Ranger Station and the Wheeler cabin.

Glacier Park information officer Lauren Alley reported that seven private summer homes and other outbuildings were lost at Kelly’s Camp, on the west shore at the end of North Lake McDonald Road.

Also destroyed was the main Kelly’s camp house, a second cabin and other buildings owned by the National Park Service.

The wall of flame visible from across the water Sunday night left just one home unburned in Kelly’s Camp, Alley said.

Evacuated as the fire approached, the residents knew there was little hope and many posted photographs of the scene after they took refuge outside Lake McDonald Lodge.

In a Facebook post Monday morning, Regina McGee Earnheart said a rescue boat took this photo of the first flames reaching historic Kelly’s Camp on the north end of Lake McDonald Sunday night.

Kelly’s Camp was a cabin resort owned and operated by Frank and Emmeline Kelly in the early years of the park. The land was homesteaded by Frank Kelly in 1894. By 1931, it was a popular summer cabin resort.

Individual families purchased the cabins at Kelly’s Camp in the 1960s; many had been longtime visitors to the camp. The community was close-knit and pledged to rebuild even before knowing for certain that virtually everything had burned.

“So much history. Just poof,” write Regina McGee Earnheart in a Facebook post showing the fire’s blowup just as it reached Kelly’s Camp and another showing children who had been staying there watching from the opposite shore.
“But the land is still there and the stories are still there,” Earnheart wrote. “It’s just the end of an era and it’s heartbreaking for the generations of families that have grown up there over the years.”

On Tuesday, Glacier Park officials said they believe that three outbuildings of the National Park Service-owned Wheeler residence were lost, as were the Wheeler boat house and the boat house at the Lake McDonald Ranger Station.

However, the main Wheeler cabin survived Sunday night’s blowup, “after valiant firefighting efforts that saved it after it caught fire,” Alley said in Tuesday’s fire update.

She said the Lake McDonald Ranger Station was also saved after its roof caught on fire.

The Wheeler complex was located east of Kelly’s camp and was originally owned by Montana Sen. Burton K. Wheeler.

According to the park, Wheeler and his family used the property as their summer home, starting in 1916.

The National Park Service purchased the property in 2014.

In Tuesday’s report on the losses, Superintendent Mow emphasized that “multiple other” privately owned homes and structures elsewhere on the North Lake McDonald Road did survive the fire’s unexpectedly rapid march.

Photographer Eric Matt took this photo from Lake McDonald Lodge Sunday night as the owner of Glacier Boat Company stayed aboard the 90-year-old DeSmet tour boat to assure it was not lost in the ember storm. (Eric Matt via Facebook)

The Howe Ridge fire was ignited Saturday night during a lightning storm, along with two other smaller wildfires.

It had covered just 20 acres when the combination of high winds, heat and dry fuels created Sunday’s firestorm. That blowup led to the evacuation of all residences and other buildings along North McDonald Road, Avalanche campground, Lake McDonald Lodge and all other buildings in its complex, residences along Going-to-the-Sun Road and Sprague campground.

The Sun Road is closed from the bottom of Lake McDonald near Apgar to Logan Pass. The road is open from the east side at St. Mary’s to the pass.

All evacuation orders and road and trail closures remained in effect on Tuesday.

Alley said the Howe Ridge fire’s behavior moderated on Monday under more favorable conditions. Ground crews aided by a water-dropping helicopter and two Canadian “super scooper” airplanes worked to limit the fire’s spread to the north.

Firefighters, in fact, worked through the night Monday chasing and suppressing spot fires that ignited as far as a half-mile in front of the flame front during the high-wind event.

The official estimate of acreage burned remained at 2,500 acres on Tuesday.

The day’s plan of attack included continued suppression of spot fires on the north end of Lake McDonald by ground crews. The K-Max helicopter and CL-215 “super scoopers” were assigned to cool the north and southwest edges of the fire.

Alley said the accounting of lost structures may increase as firefighters are able to fully access the north end of the lake.

“Fire is still very active in the area,” she reported.

Structural engines and crews remain on duty, protecting at-risk buildings.

Kalispell photographer Philip Granrud shot one final photo of the Howe Ridge fire burning toward the Sun Road as he left Glacier National Park late Sunday. (Philip Granrud)