History lost in Glacier fire can’t be replaced

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We were saddened to learn last week that dozens of historic structures in Glacier National Park were destroyed in the Howe Ridge Fire.

The blaze — now estimated at more than 10,000 acres — made an initial run Aug. 12, expanding from a few acres to nearly 2,000 acres overnight. Reports indicate that all but one cabin in the Kelly’s Camp Historic District were ruined as the blaze tore along the shore of Lake McDonald. A number of accessory buildings at the historic Wheeler residence also were lost. The main Wheeler cabin caught fire but thankfully was saved in a “valiant firefighting effort.”

Glacier Superintendent Jeff Mow described the loss of historic structures as “a heartbreaking time at the park” — a sentiment we share.

Some of the homesteads lost in the fire dated back to before Glacier was even a designated national park. Kelly’s Camp was homesteaded by Frank and Emmeline Kelly back in 1894 — the park was established in 1910.

According to park officials, the so-called in-holders will be allowed to rebuild their cabins as long as they follow lakeshore and septic guidelines. At least one cabin owner we talked to said they planned to do just that as soon as the smoke settles.

But while structures can be rebuilt, the history lost can’t be recovered.

There is still no official tally on the number of structures lost in the fire, but whatever the count, it will be too many.

Eyewitness reports called into our newsroom indicate that the blaze was first reported Saturday afternoon. For whatever reason, it wasn’t until late Sunday morning that helicopters with water buckets and two Canadian “super scoopers” responded to the scene. Unfortunately, the aerial resources had little effect, and as the wind picked up that evening, it was too late. The fire was making its run.

Some cabin owners have openly criticized the park’s initial response, questioning why more resources weren’t on the fire sooner — before it became too big to handle.

“If you can’t get at (these fires) in a short amount of time, they’re gone,” one in-holder said. “There has to be a rapid response.”

It’s a fair point, and one that the Park Service needs to address. Why wasn’t this fire tended to more promptly, especially given the lessons supposedly learned in last summer’s devastating Sprague Fire?

We were told firefighters were dispatched just a few hours after the fire was reported, but that they couldn’t reach the fire due to tricky terrain littered with fallen snags from the 2003 Robert Fire. Aerial resources also weren’t available.

If it’s a matter of resources, what can be done to have a designated firefighting helicopter stationed at the park for moments exactly like what happened last week? And does it make sense to allow national parks to pre-emptively clear forests of fire fuels surrounding historic structures on a case-by-case basis?

These historic cabin owners — along with the rest of us in the valley who will breathe the smoke and feel the pinch of another tourist season shortened by wildfires in Glacier — deserve to have this conversation.

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