Wildland Fire History — Fire in Glacier!

Joe Decker, West Lakes District Interpreter, Glacier National Park

Originally published Spring 1989 in Interpretation. Please note that many of the writers whose articles are included in this publication have since moved to new / different positions, retired, or passed on.

Since the end of the last ice age, fire has played a significant role in determining the character of Glacier National Park’s forests.

West of the continental divide, the cool, moist, inland maritime climate creates ideal conditions for the growth of dense stands of spruce, fir, lodgepole pine, and western larch. In a few special locations luxuriant stands of western hemlock and western red cedar create the illusion of a northwest Pacific Coast rain forest. East of the mountains, due to drier conditions, the forest soon gives way to the grasslands of the Great Plains. In Glacier, a combination of factors sets the stage for wildland fire: dry summers, periods of drought, late summer lightning storms, and fuel buildup.

Glacier’s forests have burned many times. Fire–scarred ponderosa pine and western larch have revealed 66 individual fire years dating from 1470. In 1910, the year Glacier was designated a national park, more than 100,000 acres of forest burned. A trip across the continental divide on Glacier’s famed Going–to–the–Sun Road can provide the observant visitor a quick introduction to the park’s fire history. At Glacier’s west entrance, the road passes through a relatively young, even–aged lodgepole pine forest, the result of a 1929 fire. Further up the road, near Logan Creek, mastlike snags and shrubby new growth can be seen at the site of the 1967 Glacier Wall Fire. Finally, near StMary, the eastern terminus of the Sun Road, blackened snags are evidence of the 1984 Napi Point Fire. Clearly, fire, as an element of change, is a significant contributor to Glacier’s biological diversity.

Forest fire is one of nature’s most powerful forces. Its effects can be found parkwide and serve to stimulate visitor interest. In order to provide a better understanding of fire in the Glacier ecosystem, park interpretation addresses the topic in a variety of ways. Illustrated and non–illustrated campfire programs, special displays, wayside exhibits, hikes to fire lookouts, and hikes into new and old burn sites are examples of methods used by Glacier’s interpreters. The hot, dry summer of 1988 reinforced the need to interpret the role of fire in biological communities. Although Glacier went through most of the summer without a major fire, the news media’s focus on events in Yellowstone brought visitor interest in fire to an all–time high. Park interpreters were deluged with questions concerning the Yellowstone fires. To accommodate interest, Yellowstone fire information was posted in Glacier’s visitor centers, and fire conditions throughout the west were discussed during interpretive programs.

Glacier’s luck in avoiding a major fire came to an end on September 6th. A smoldering snag from a week–old lightning strike burst into flames on the Flathead National Forest. Within hours, high winds fanned the spot fire into a blaze covering several hundred acres. The next day, wind–whipped flames jumped the North Fork of the Flathead River, entering Glacier National park’s northwest corner. Due to extremely dry and windy conditions, fire fighters were in a full suppression mode, but little could be done to halt the fire’s advance. At one point the fire was moving forward at nearly 15 miles per hour. Eleven days later, cool temperatures, light winds, and rain reduced the flames to ashes and isolated hotspots.

The Red Bench Fire, as it was named, was short–lived but had major consequences. Approximately 38,000 acres of national park, national forest, and private land were within the fire perimeter. Property damage was high with the loss of 25 dwellings and numerous outbuildings. In Glacier, the historic character of the Polebridge Ranger Station was altered when fire destroyed five buildings in addition to the bridge across the North Fork of the Flathead River. Tragically, one fire fighter was killed and another 19 were injured on the line.

During the fire, park interpreters provided visitors with a running account of fire fighting efforts. In the Apgar Visitor Center, we plotted the fire’s spread and posted updated fire bulletins as they were available. Also, an NPS interpreter was assigned to the Flathead National Forest Headquarters to assist in their information operation. Since access to the Red Bench Fire was strictly controlled, few visitors ever saw the actual burn site. A steady column of smoke and steam rising over the heavily wooded ridges was the limited view most visitors experienced. Formal programs and roving interpretation attempted to bring this scene into perspective.

Even now that it is history, interest remains high in events surrounding the Red Bench Fire. To provide accurate information, an interagency working group, comprised of Park and Forest Service interpreters and resource managers, has been formed. This group has developed interpretive materials, such as portable exhibits and a slide/sound program, to introduce the public to the Red Bench Fire and its ecological benefits and sociological impacts. Other interagency efforts planned for this summer include a regularly scheduled Glacier campfire program presented by a Forest Service Interpreter; siting an NPS produced fire wayside on the National Forest; and exchanges ofNPS/USFS information desk personnel. The interagency cooperation that existed on the fire line continues through the educational efforts of Park and Forest Service interpreters.

Nature, with time, will mask all traces of the Red Bench Fire. By spring, new vegetation will begin to appear. The process may be slow, but fire has set the stage for dramatic re–establishment of a new and dynamic forest in a continuing natural cycle. Fire has been a major force in shaping Glacier’s forests over the years and will continue to do so in the future.

Interpretation [was] a combined effort of the Washington Division of Interpretation and the Regional Chiefs of Interpretation. The publication [was] edited and designed by the staff of the Interpretive Design Center at Harpers Ferry:

General Editor: Julia Holmaas
Technical Editor: J. Scott Harmon
Designer: Phillip Musselwhite
Contributing Editors:
Joe Zarki: Yellowstone National Park
Ginny Cowan: Yellowstone National Park

Last updated: January 6, 2017