Glacier latest U.S. park to be scorched by Western wildfires

Monday, Aug. 13, 2018 5:20 PM
A boat taking off from Apgar heads across Lake McDonald on Monday morning, Aug. 13, 2018. Three fires burning in the park have reduced visibility and air quality.

A wildfire destroyed structures and forced evacuations Monday from the busiest area of Montana’s Glacier National Park, as officials in California prepared to reopen Yosemite National Park after a two-week closure at the height of the summer season.

Glacier’s Sprague Creek campground was closed and evacuated, a day after a fast-moving fire triggered the evacuation of dozens of guests from the historic Lake McDonald Lodge last Sunday night.

Park officials said in a statement that structures on the north end of Lake McDonald were lost, but they did not provide details on the number and type. The fire grew to between 2 and 4 square miles by Monday afternoon.

Crews were expected to stay on scene through the night to protect houses and other structures from the flames.

A fire burns Sunday next to Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. The fire, which was started by lightning on Saturday night, has forced the evacuation of the Lake McDonald Lodge and a nearby campground.
Chris Peterson/Hungry Horse News via AP

A second campground and private residences inside the park’s boundary also were evacuated and a 30-mile stretch of the scenic Going-to-the-Sun-Road was closed to traffic. The road, with breathtaking views of the park’s mountainous interior, is a major draw for tourists.

Wildfires flare up regularly at many of the large national parks that dot the U.S. West, often burning in densely-forested, backcountry areas where their effects are limited. This year’s blazes threaten to have a magnified impact coming at the height of the summer tourist season.

“It just completely exploded. Yesterday we were watching it grow all day, and now it’s so smoky you can’t see anything,” said Kyersten Siebenaler with Glacier Outfitters, which rents boats in Apgar, a small community at the south end of the lake.

The outfitting company was trying to help tourists who evacuated find places to stay on the east side of the park, where it was not as smoky, Siebenaler said.

From left, Yaqmur Abay from Turkey and Anne Ruiz from Spain, two summer employees in Glacier National Park, sit on the edge of the Apgar dock with the feet in the water of Lake McDonald on Monday morning, Aug. 13, 2018. The iconic view into the park has been completely obscured and air quality has been significantly affected by multiple wildfires which are currently burning.
Brenda Ahearn/The Daily Inter Lake via AP

More than 400,000 visitors last month passed through the west entrance of Glacier, near McDonald Lake. August is typically just as busy, and a protracted shutdown of part of the park could hurt the tourist-driven local economy.

Yosemite was scheduled to reopen Tuesday after being largely closed since July 25 because of smoke from fires in remote areas that choked the scenic Yosemite Valley.

The closure caused upheaval for thousands of tourists whose summer trips were cancelled. Visitors were warned to expect limited hours and services as the park returns to normal.

The fire burning in Glacier was one of several started by lightning on Saturday evening. Windy, dry conditions on Sunday caused the blaze to spread rapidly, in full view of tourists and people who live and work around Lake McDonald, a 9-mile- (14-kilometer-) long body of water ringed by steep-sided mountains.

Two planes from Canada were brought in to help battle the blaze, but officials said high winds prevented their pilots from flying close enough to the fire to be effective.

The lake was partially closed to boaters while the planes were scooping up water to drop on the fire, Siebenaler said.

It’s the second year in a row that wildfires prompted evacuations around Lake McDonald. A blaze in the area last year destroyed the Sperry Chalet, an iconic backcountry lodge built in 1914.

An air tanker drops water Sunday over a wildfire burning in Glacier National Park, Mont. The fire was started by lightning on Saturday night and forced the evacuation of the Lake McDonald Lodge and closed part of the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road in the park.
Chris Peterson/Hungry Horse News via AP

Taylor Creasey of Whitefish said she and a friend drove up to the lodge Sunday afternoon after they heard about the fire, the Missoulian newspaper reported. She posted a video on Facebook of huge plumes of smoke hanging over burning ridges around the lake.

“We didn’t expect to see anything that crazy,” Creasey said Monday. “It was so cold there, but at the same time really hot – you could feel the heat radiating across the lake. It was windy and cold and hot all at the same time.”