As a former park ranger of 20-plus years with several hundred fires under my belt, my alarm bells were going off when I heard about a lightening-caused fire midway between the iconic, century-old Sperry Chalet and Lake McDonald Lodge. While I’m a supporter of such natural fires where appropriate, everything about this fire shouted for “immediate, 100 percent suppression.”
First, there was the potential threat to not one, but two, irreplaceable park structures. Second, the fire was reported to be burning in old growth forests that hadn’t burned since the 1700s — not something to be sacrificed lightly. Third, in our current extreme fire conditions, this fire could be one wind shift away from closing Going-to-the-Sun Road. And finally, it was clear that the closure or loss of these facilities, coupled with the closure of the Sun Road, would cause a major economic hit to Northwest Montana, where Glacier Park brought in $250 million in 2016.
Initially, the Sprague Fire was just 35 acres, and despite steep, hazardous terrain, there’s a substantial likelihood it could have been suppressed with a modest ground crew supported by even one helicopter brought to bear early on. Unfortunately, the decision was made, presumably by GNP Superintendent Jeff Mow in coordination with Natural Resources Program Manager Mark Biel, and initial Incident Commander Jim Edgren, to adopt a “confine and contain” strategy using terrain, natural fuel breaks, and sprinklers to shape/modify fire behavior.
So, how did “confine and contain” work for the park? Take a look at the chronology:
• 8/10 – Fire at 35 acres.
• 8/16 – Fire grows to 100 acres.
• 8/18 – 200 acres.
• 8/19 – 500 acres. Mount Brown Lookout wrapped with protective material, but not Sperry Chalet.
• 8/30 – 1575 acres.
• 8/31 – Lake McDonald Lodge closes early, cancelling 2,200 existing reservations; new Incident Commander Diane Hutton expresses crews’ confidence they can suppress a fire at Sperry Chalet; fire explodes to 4,646 acres and Sperry Chalet burns.
• 9/1 – Photos show the chalet ablaze with only token areas covered by protective wrap, and none on the roof.
• 9/4 – 9403 acres.
Fire Information Officer Diane Sine offered the following “spin”:
“…logistically, it is difficult to wrap a building the size of the chalet. Each roll of the fire-resistant material weighs about 100 pounds, and the crew couldn’t get to the top of the two-story building.”
Of course in the real world, none of this “spin” passes the straight face test. In the 2003 Robert Fire, numerous buildings were wrapped — some of them quite large. It just takes longer. And if there was no problem with hauling rolls of 100-pound wrap to Mount Brown on 8/19, why had virtually nothing been done at Sperry 12 days later? Finally, “no way to get to the top of the two-story chalet” — Please! How about a quick run on 8/20 to the GNP maintenance sheds or Costco for three or four heavy-duty ladders?
The inconvenient truth is that park management and initial incident command dropped the ball from day one when they chose not to actively suppress a 35-acre fire in a demonstrably dangerous location. Now it’s time for Park Superintendent Mow and other decision makers to do the professional, responsible, and honorable thing — Resign.
Peck is a resident of Columbia Falls.