Smoke from Sprague Fire closes Lake McDonald Lodge

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  • J.T. Dolores of Glacier Park Boat Company wears a respirator as he readies boats at the dock at Lake McDonald Lodge Wednesday morning.

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    People were still milling about the Lake McDonald Lodge Wednesday morning, as smoke from the Sprague Fire and a shower turned skies gray. Many we spoke to weren’t actually guests, but were waiting to take a boat tour on the DeSmet.

  • J.T. Dolores of Glacier Park Boat Company wears a respirator as he readies boats at the dock at Lake McDonald Lodge Wednesday morning.

  • 1

    People were still milling about the Lake McDonald Lodge Wednesday morning, as smoke from the Sprague Fire and a shower turned skies gray. Many we spoke to weren’t actually guests, but were waiting to take a boat tour on the DeSmet.

Dennis Rich of Illinois got a note slipped under his door at the Lake McDonald Lodge in Glacier National Park Tuesday night.

The lodge would be closing for the season. His two-day stay was cut to one. The smoke from the 1,500-plus acre Sprague Fire was just too thick for guests and staff.

Rich had kudos for the staff at the lodge.

“They were pleasant and handled it very well,” he said. They even found him and his wife a room at hotel at the south end of Glacier.

“It turned out to be less expensive,” he said.

The lodge was locked and shuttered completely by 11 a.m.

Rich said he could definitely smell the smoke from blaze, which has been growling around below Sperry Chalet for nearly a month now. They took a boat ride of the DeSmet last night on Lake McDonald, which gave them a good view of the fire.

“We could see the trees flame up,” he said.

The tour boat remains open.

The decision to close the lodge came from concessionaire Glacier National Park Lodges out of concern for its employees, who have been exposed to the smoke for several days now. When the weather cools at night, smoke from the fire settles like smog over the north end of Lake McDonald. Several employees on Wednesday were wearing masks the company gave them.

Manager Marc Ducharme said that reservations were canceled and people were given a list of hotels as possible alternatives. He said there are still openings in other areas of the Flathead, including Whitefish and Kalispell. He noted that logistically it would have been tough to close the hotel for just a week or so, to wait for the smoke to clear. The hotel has a lot of perishable food items and employees couldn’t be expected to wait around for it to reopen. He said it was booked solid through September.

The lodge employs about 150 people. There were other openings in other Xanterra Parks and Resort properties, including Many Glacier, Swiftcurrent and even as far as Yellowstone, Ducharme said, and employees were offered jobs at those other properties.

Xanterra is the parent company of Glacier National Park Lodges.

Most of the Park had been fairly smoke free, but stagnant air the past few days has made air conditions worse.

The lodge was expected to close Sept. 27 for the season. This is not the first time the lodge has been closed due to wildfire. In 2003 it closed as the Robert Fire burned along the north shore of Lake McDonald. In 2015, the lodges and cabins at Rising Sun were closed due to a wildfire on the east side of the Park.

Visitors with reservations for Lake McDonald Lodge can contact Glacier National Park Lodges at: http://www.glaciernationalparklodges.com or 1-855-733-4522.

The fire has only been impacting the Lake McDonald area, though most of west side of Glacier is now smoky as multiple fires outside the Park are burning as well. The full length of the Going-to-the-Sun Road remains open.

Two days of data indicate air quality levels have fluctuated between “good” and beyond the uppermost limit of “hazardous.” The hazardous air quality readings have occurred in the evening and earlier morning hours.

The Park has not closed the nearby Sprague Creek campground, which has similar air quality issues.

A light rain fell in the area Wednesday morning, though a red flag warning was up for later today and tomorrow, with erratic winds from thunderstorms expected.

The Sprague Fire was taken over by a Type II team last week, headed up by incident commander Diane Hutton. They’ve set up camp outside the KOA campground in West Glacier.

About 135 people are on the fire. Sprinklers have been set up at Crystal Ford with the hope of keeping the fire from traveling down the drainage to Lake McDonald.

To the east, the fire has yet to reach Sperry Chalet. Firefighters are staged at the chalet should the blaze get there.

The chalet is in rocky terrain and the fire crew is confident they can suppress a blaze should it reach the historic structure.

They’ve also done tree thinning near Lake McDonald Lodge in the event the fire does reach the valley floor.

A helicopter has been dropping water to cool the fire line near Snyder Creek. They don’t want the fire to spot onto Mount Brown, where it could threaten the Sun Road and structures below.

The blaze has crossed the Gunsight Pass trail and is still burning on the flanks of Lincoln Peak, though it hasn’t reached the summit or Lincoln Pass.

About a two-mile swath of the Gunsight Pass Trail has burned in the fire. It’s a mosaic burn, fire managers say, but it still promises to be a hot hike in coming years without shade trees.

Trails, the chalet, and backcountry campgrounds near the fire are closed.

The weather isn’t going to make things any better. Temperatures are expected to be 10 degrees above normal by the weekend with no rain in sight well into next week.

The public can access the air quality monitoring station at Lake McDonald Lodge and state air quality information at the following sites. For an air quality index: http://airnow.gov/index.cfm?action=aqibasics.aqi. For Lake McDonald Lodge air monitor: https://wrcc.dri.edu/cgi-bin/rawMAIN4.pl?ids215+29+08+17+M. For Montana smoke readings: https://wrcc.dri.edu/cgi-bin/smoke.pl.

Visitors can also view the park’s webcams to get a visual sense of air quality at many locations across the park. Fire officials expect the Sprague Fire will continue to burn until the area receives significant precipitation later this fall.

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