Evacuations, trail closures expand in Glacier National Park; historic cabins lost in firestorm

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)

Evacuation orders and trail closures expanded in Glacier National Park Monday after extreme fire behavior pushed the Howe Ridge fire from 20 acres to as many as 2,500 overnight, prompting what park officials called “very rapid evacuations” of Lake McDonald Lodge, private residences and the Avalanche campground.

Structures were lost on the north end of Lake McDonald, despite the best efforts of structural firefighters and engines from Flathead County fire departments. The exact number has not been released, but park officials said the structural firefighting response was “significant.”

About 50 private inholdings are on the north end of the lake, many of which have cabins or other structures predating Glacier’s designation as a national park. The Lake McDonald Ranger Station and private residences of some park employees are in the same area.

In a Facebook post Monday morning, Regina McGee Earnheart said a rescue boat took photos as the first flames reached historic Kelly’s Camp on the north end of Lake McDonald Sunday night. She said the first of the buildings dated to 1896, and that she feared all were lost. That fear has not been confirmed by park officials.

“The end of an era,” Earnheart lamented. “Now there are only the stories left. To say I am numb is a gross understatement.”

Lauren Alley, a public information officer for Glacier, said the firefighting response was hampered by the extremely dry and windy conditions and by the lack of immediately available firefighting crews and a fire incident management team.

“Fire behavior last night was extreme,” Alley said in her morning fire update. “Tree torching, crown runs, wind-driven fire, and fire spots up to one-half mile away occurred for multiple hours.”

While some structures were lost along North Lake McDonald Road, she said “multiple buildings were saved.”

The fire’s rapid spread prompted the evacuation of 87 campsites, 82 rooms at Lake McDonald Lodge, and other visitors, employees and local residents in a two-hour window Sunday night.

That evacuation included the private residences along Going-to-the-Sun Road and on North Lake McDonald Road.

Alley said the first evacuations were ordered at 8 p.m. Sunday when the fire column shifted and began spotting large distances. One spot fire was found on the opposite side of Stanton Mountain. The fire front itself moved quickly over the ridge.

On Monday, the fire was spotted on the Trout Lake side of Stanton Mountain. Initial estimates put the fire’s new acreage at between 1,500 and 2,500, and growing.

Photographer Eric Matt documented the firestorm from across Lake McDonald. (Eric Matt via Facebook)

Because conditions are so dry and another run could occur at any time, the evacuation order was extended to the Sprague Creek campground, which is south of Lake McDonald Lodge and includes 25 campsites.

The Sun Road closure also expanded and is now in effect from the foot of Lake McDonald near Apgar to Logan Pass.

The road remains open from the east side between St. Mary and Logan Pass.

Trail closures associated with the fire also increased Monday to include The Loop trail. The full list of closures is lengthy, and is available on Glacier Park’s website.

Park officials said there are a number of cars parked at The Loop that belong to hikers and campers currently in the backcountry. Those cars will remain in the lot and visitors will need to drive out of the park to the east, over Logan Pass and via St. Mary.

All visitor services at Lake McDonald Lodge are closed, and there is no access to the lodge. Lodge employees have also been evacuated.

Alley said outside agencies have sent firefighters and equipment to Glacier “in a limited capacity” since the Howe Ridge fire and two others were ignited during a lightning storm Saturday night. Many more firefighters have been requested, but have not yet been supplied by the national fire coordination center.

The 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)

In addition, two Canadian “super scooper” aircraft provided four hours of water drops on the Howe Ridge fire Sunday afternoon, but could not get close enough to the flames because of high winds.

The planes and a K-Max Type I helicopter were back on Monday afternoon, pulling water from the lake and dropping it on the widespread spot fires, Alley said in a mid-afternoon fire update. The intent, she said, is to “establish a secure anchor point fro which to fight the fire.”

“Multiple structural engines and wildland engine crews are protecting structures and working to suppress spot fires,” she continued. “Crews and engines will remain through the night to protect structures where they can do so safely.”

About 60 firefighters were working on the Howe Ridge fire Monday afternoon.

Prior to the extreme fire activity yesterday, the park joined with the Flathead National Forest to request a Type I incident management team to manage the Howe Ridge fire, the Paola Creek fire, and the Coal Creek fire. That request remains.

On Monday afternoon, Alley said the Type I team would assume command of the fire later this week. In the meantime, a Type III Flathead County Interagency Team will help the park to check the fire’s spread and to continue protecting the structures in its path.

Alley said Monday’s top priority, though, is firefighter and visitor safety.

“Ground firefighters are evaluating what areas of the fire are possible to contain with resources on hand,” she said. “They will also establish trigger points that would prompt additional evacuations or warnings for other areas in the park.”

Small crews continue to try and suppress the other two lightning-sparked fires inside the park: at Numa Ridge and the Heavens Sake fire.

In addition, Glacier National Park imposed Stage 2 fire restrictions at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

That means no campfires will be permitted in the front country or backcountry. Smoking will be prohibited except within an enclosed building, vehicle, developed recreation area, or barren area 3 feet in diameter. Propane stoves that have an on/off switch are permitted.

Glacier has established a recorded fire information line with updated information: 406-888-7077.