Fire managers on the Sprague Fire in Glacier National Park are hoping to get “super scooper” aircraft in the coming days to fight the blaze’s west flank above the Going-to-the-Sun Road.
The fixed-wing planes skim just above a lake’s surface, scooping water into tanks onboard. They can drop up to 1,600 gallons of water at a time on the fire. Lake McDonald is a perfect water body for the planes.
The hope is to keep the fire on the top of Snyder Ridge. If it comes off the west side of the ridge, it could threaten the Lake McDonald Lodge complex and Glacier’s stands of coveted old-growth cedar and hemlock, of which some trees are more than 500 years old.
So far, the 13,000-plus acre fire has stopped when it’s reached the cedar-hemlock forests on Snyder Ridge, but the weather is expected to continue to remain warm and dry for at least the next two weeks.
“Things look pretty glum,” meteorologist Phil Manuel told a capacity crowd during a public meeting in Park headquarters Wednesday night.
The planes haven’t arrived because of smoke, but it’s expected to clear on Friday, as a front moves in.
Glacier also has the Adair Peak Fire at 1,800 acres on the south side of Logging Lake and the Elder Creek Fire east of the North Fork of the Flathead River at about 175 acres near the border. It started in Canada during a logging operation north of the border. The total size of the blaze is more than 1,800 acres.
The fire is being managed by Diane Hutton’s Type II team. They transition out next Tuesday.
Hutton noted there 81 fires in the West, covering 1.4 million acres of which 574,552 acres are in the Northern Rockies. Montana alone has 28 large fires. Resources are tight, but firefighters are doing the best with what they have, but just getting protective structure wraps has been tough, as orders go unfilled.
A myriad of hose lays and sprinklers have been set up at the lodge and local fire departments were staged there with structure protection crews for a couple of days when the fire made big runs over the weekend. Firefighters will also put out a “rain for rent” sprinkler system, which includes 1,000 feet of mainline and 8,000 feet of handline near and around the lodge.
The local departments will return again if they’re needed. But right now, the fire activity has been set to simmer as dense smoke has filled the west side of Glacier. The smoke makes the air unhealthy to breathe, but also stymies fire growth, fire managers noted.
Trying times are ahead for the fire. Friday there’s a chance of thunderstorms and only a 30 percent chance of rain. Once the front passes through winds are expected to pick up through the weekend.
Fire forecaster Tim Baumgarner of Columbia Falls said the winds are expected out of the southwest which would push the fire to the north as it tries to wrap around Mount Brown. It’s also expected to grow further into the Walton Creek drainage back toward Harrison Lake.
If the fire gets around Mount Brown, it could run toward Avalanche Lake and down Avalanche Creek.
There is also concern about Apgar and West Glacier. Right now, the fire is about 5 miles north of town. Evacuations would come if the fire gets closer, but that’s largely up to the fire behavior at the time, Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry noted. He said people would get warnings through cell phones and automated calls to land lines. It would first be a pre-evacuation notice, which means folks should get ready to leave and then a full evacuation notice, which means get out.
The Two Bear Air helicopter has also been helping fire crews. It’s infrared cameras have been giving crews images of the hottest parts of the fire.
Glacier Park superintendent Jeff Mow defended the Park’s initial response to the fire. He said 46,000 gallons of water were dropped on the fire in the first day and 96,000 gallons on the second day. He noted that every lightning-caused fire from the lightning storm that started the Aug. 10 blaze were full suppression fires.
Park firefighters responded to multiple starts and got most of them out.
Having fought the Red Bench Fire in 1988, Mow noted that the main difference with the Sprague Fire has been growth during the night. At Red Bench, crews were able to fight the fire at night, not so with Sprague, which has seen huge runs after dark.
He said Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke has requested a full outside investigation of the fire.
“An outside team will look at it,” Mow said. “And what we can learn from it.”
The loss of Sperry Chalet was a tough pill to swallow.
“Losing Sperry Chalet was very hard on everyone,” he said. “It felt like you lost a member of the family.”
The Park is lining up contractors and experts to access the damage at the chalet once the fire is out and they can get in there safely.
The hope is stabilize the structure before winter comes. Funding for that would likely come from the Glacier National Park Conservancy, which has offered its full help. Already, more than 500 people have signed up for email alerts should funding be needed before winter, though the Conservancy has not started raising funds as of yet.
Deputy Superintendent Eric Smith said the Park is trying to keep operations as normal as possible. He couldn’t predict when the Going-to-the-Sun Road would reopen on the west side, because the weather would ultimately make that call.
Logan Pass remains open from the east side. Glacier’s east side and nearly all of its trails are still open and relatively free of smoke.
The Park is also dealing with logistical concerns at Goat Haunt. Waterton Lakes National Park has closed all its lands because of a wildfire on its north end and the border crossing at Goat Haunt has also been closed. Meanwhile, the Park has employees at Goat Haunt who need to get out.