Lake McDonald Lodge evacuated, Sun Road closed by explosive wildfire

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)

Glacier National Park officials ordered the evacuation of Lake McDonald Lodge and all nearby buildings at 9 p.m. Sunday as a lightning-sparked wildfire blew up, throwing embers far ahead of the flame front.

Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed from Lake McDonald Lodge to Logan Pass, and officials have evacuated the Avalanche Creek campground and residences along North Lake McDonald Road.

Extremely dry and windy conditions Sunday fanned the Howe Ridge fire into an inferno by nightfall, less than 24 hours after it was ignited during a lightning storm.

Photographs from the scene showed a growing smoke column on northwest of Lake McDonald and, later, flames approaching the Sun Road.

The blowup played out over about three hours on Sunday night, with park officials releasing a series of public announcements that became increasingly dire.

At 7 p.m., public information officer Lauren Alley reported that the Howe Ridge fire had resisted firefighters’ best efforts on Sunday.

Canadian CL-215s, known better as a “super scoopers,” dropped plane-loads of water on the fire for four hours with no seeming effect, Alley said.

Canadian “super scoopers” dropped water on the Howe Ridge fire for four hours Sunday, to no avail. (Philip Granrud)

Time and again, the planes scooped water from Lake McDonald and doused the flames. The fire continued to burn actively, so the aircraft were redirected to other fires.

Meanwhile, firefighters were hiking into the fire. They, too, were turned back by the flames and were unable to engage the fire. There were too many concerns for firefighter safety with such active fire behavior, according to Alley.

At 7 p.m., park officials estimated the Howe Ridge fire at 20 acres. No evacuations were ordered at that time. (Earlier in the day, in fact, the fire was directly opposite Lake McDonald Lodge and a crowd of visitors gathered along the lakeshore to watch and take photographs.)

By 8 p.m., everything changed. The fire was on the run.

Officials ordered the immediate evacuation of all residences and campground sites from North Lake McDonald Road to Logan Pass.

That order included the 87-site Avalanche Creek campground, the Lake McDonald Ranger Station (where several National Park Service employees live) and about 50 private homes on the north end of Lake McDonald.

The private homes are inholdings that predate Glacier Park.

Those structures were now at risk of burning, and a structure protection team was requested. By dark, structural protection engines were in place along the North Lake Road.

Still, the fire continued to grow even as darkness fell.

At 9 a.m. came the third announcement: The entire Lake McDonald Lodge complex was ordered to evacuate, including all guests and employees of the historic lodge.

The lodge was also evacuated last summer because of the Sprague fire and eventually was closed for the season because of both the fire and high concentrations of smoke.

The Sprague fire’s blowup spared Lake McDonald, but consumed Sperry Chalet, in Glacier’s high-altitude backcountry above Lake McDonald.

Late Sunday, the south end of the lake – including Apgar Village and its hotels, restaurants and shops, and the Grist Road – remained open. Logan Pass also remained open from the east side via the St. Mary entrance, as did the North Fork, Two Medicine and Many Glacier.

Kalispell photographer Philip Granrud took this photo of the Howe Ridge fire about 5 p.m. Sunday, as it burned to the northwest of Lake McDonald, and before its nighttime run. (Philip Granrud)

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As it moved through Glacier Park, Saturday night’s lightning storm sparked three wildfires that were the focus of suppression efforts on Sunday.

The Howe Ridge fire proved the most explosive. All provoked an interagency firefighting response.

Ten smokejumpers were dropped onto the Numa Ridge fire. For several hours, they got help from a helicopter dropping buckets of water on the flames.

By dark, the Numa Ridge fire was estimated at 1.5 acres.

The Heaven’s Sake fire, burning midway up Heaven’s Peak, was more resistant.

A team of heli-rapellers were requested but could not reach the fire because of high winds on the mountain.

Glacier officials said fire managers have again requested the heli-rapellers for Monday, as that is the only way to reach the fire because of the terrain.

The Heaven’s Sake fire was estimated at a tenth of an acre on Sunday night. While considerable acreage in the area burned in 2003 during the Trapper fire, the new blaze is in an unburned area.

Fire managers expressed their concerns for the coming week as part of Sunday night’s announcement. Glacier National Park recorded its first-ever 100-degree day on Friday, and continued hot and dry conditions are expected in the days to come.

Glacier officials have established a recorded fire information line, and will keep it updated with the latest reports from the fires. Call (406) 888-7077.