Last updated: October 16, 2017
We can see the impact fire has on Glacier National Park. From nearby, we can smell or even taste it in the air. From far away, we can only feel our connection to the place.
This was a busy summer in Glacier National Park. In fact, it was busier than ever, with over a million visitors coming to the park this July alone! The park is on track to break visitation records for the fourth year in a row. If you’re familiar with the park, it’s no surprise why it has been so busy. Many visitors are drawn to the park because it offers the chance to see the power of nature. We come from all over the world to marvel at towering mountains, raging waterfalls, and powerful sheets of ice.
After this summer, we don’t necessarily need any more reminders of the power of nature. Hurricanes flooded coastal regions, while much of the West didn’t seen rain all summer. As a result, wildfires across the country burned over eight million acres this year; covering an area larger than the state of Maryland.
Glacier, like the rest of Montana, is dealing with wildfires. Even areas far from the actual flames were covered in a layer of smoke. The largest of the three fires in the park is the Sprague Fire above Lake McDonald. At over 16,000 acres (or the size of twelve thousand football fields), this fire closed popular trails, campgrounds, and even sections of Going-to-the-Sun-Road. Consequently, visitors arriving to Glacier had to adjust their plans based on closures and smoke related air quality concerns.
As a ranger, I talk to visitors every day about the natural world. I even give a Junior Ranger program about wildfire! I’ve talked with kids all summer long about the important role fire plays in an ecosystem, despite the destruction it can cause. We talk about how fires start, how fires behave, and what happens to an area after a fire goes out. Still, I wasn’t counting on an example so close to home.
On August 10th, we faced a storm that brought strong winds, hail, and lightning. Those of us on the shores of Lake McDonald watched lightning strike in the distance, only to see smoke appear shortly afterward. What started as a lightning strike grew to a ten acre fire that night. Firefighters dumped 100,000 gallons of water on it the next day, but the fire still burned.
We watched from far away as the fire made slow and steady progress. For several weeks it wasn’t spreading towards us, so we weren’t too concerned. Through it all, I was telling myself what I’d been telling others all summer: Fire is a natural and necessary part of a healthy ecosystem.
Then we lost Sperry Chalet.
On August 31st, sudden winds pushed the fire east towards the structure. Firefighters were stationed there to defend the structure with sprinklers and protective wrapping, with the hopes that it wouldn’t be needed. Despite their precautions, an incoming rain of embers and heat ignited the interior of the chalet building, and the main structure was lost. Thankfully all the firefighters were safe, but it left everyone with an unwanted reminder of the power of nature.
It’s hard to talk about. Frankly, it’s upsetting. Sperry Chalet was an icon. It stood tall, as a living and breathing artifact of the earliest days of the park, when visitors arrived by rail to find a wilderness untouched by roads. Its loss felt like we’d lost both a friend and a part of our past. Any thoughts of fire as a necessary forest process were thrown out the window, replaced with concern and fear for the rest of the park. Feelings of fear and frustration washed over everyone here. Community members, park employees, and visitors from across the country all felt it. It’s not a feeling I’d wish on anyone, but powerful feelings (good or bad) do highlight the things important to us. The loss of Sperry Chalet captured one of the most important things about this park.
There are few places on earth more capable than Glacier at connecting us to the world we live in. It doesn’t matter where you come from or whether you visit for a month or a day; one visit is enough to leave an impression on anyone. This place and the stories of its past linger with us long after we leave, and icons like Sperry Chalet stand out in our memory. Why? The loss of a cabin hotel built anywhere else wouldn’t have had this effect on so many people. But here, Sperry Chalet was a link to the land itself. It was a connection to the mountains that have drawn people here for thousands of years, and a testament to those who came before us.
At our core, that’s what the National Park Service strives to do: We create meaningful connections between our parks and the people who visit them. The loss of Sperry Chalet, tragic as it has been, is a compelling reminder of how effective Glacier is at inspiring us. Lofty peaks, cascading waterfalls, and raging wildfires offer us glimpses into nature’s true power. In one visit, you can witness both the awe-inspiring and the intimidating. That’s what makes this place so incredible. While the fire is prompting closures and evacuations now, soon it will become part of our natural history. Rain has finally begun to fall, and snow will blanket the blackened ground before too long. By next spring when the snow melts away, we will watch life’s triumphant return. Fireweed, lodgepole pine, and other species that rely on fire will flourish. The young forest growing from the ashes will link us to a time and place, just like the chalet.
Fire is tremendously powerful. It closes our roads, blocks our views, and even chokes the breath in our lungs, but it can’t smother our connection to Glacier. In fact, I’ve watched as this fire made that bond even stronger. Whether through stories of nights at the chalet, offers for donations, or even just a concerned Facebook comment, this fire has brought an outpouring of love and support.
With the fire still smoldering, it may seem like a small comfort to know people care, but to the firefighters and staff hard at work here, it means the world. We hope to hear more about what Glacier means to you. We hope to see more of your pictures and hear more of your stories, because those things prove something. It proves even the power of fire cannot overcome our power to love this place.
For the final reports on fires in the park, follow this link: https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/unit/2897/
For road status and park information, check our Current Conditions page: www.nps.gov/glac/planyourvisit/conditions
For views of Lake McDonald, check our webcams: www.nps.gov/glac/learn/photosmultimedia/webcams