The National Park Service has released a video narrative of the first 36 hours of last year’s Howe Ridge Fire, which burned down 13 cabins and more than a dozen other structures along the north shore of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.
In a documentary-style video, firefighters and residents explain what happened the night of Aug. 11 after lightning struck Howe Ridge, starting the blaze. Lightning also caused several other fires both in Glacier and near Kalispell that same night.
Firefighters in the piece say they got the initial call of the fire about 7:15 p.m., but residents the Hungry Horse News spoke to after the fire said they informed park staff earlier than that — about 5:30 p.m.
Whatever the case, firefighters attempted to get to the blaze by foot that night, but the fire started in re-growth from the 2003 Robert Fire and was thick with downed timber and sapling lodgepole pines.
There were also higher priority fires in the region, noted the Forest Service.
“The main issue was to get the fires west of (Kalispell) dealt with,” said one fire manager.
The video doesn’t formally identify anyone in the video. There are no titles, though the Hungry Horse News was able to identify most of them, as they’re all local firefighters or rangers the newspaper has worked with over the years.
Throughout the video, firefighters and park managers expressed surprise at the ferocity of the fire and how, in short, it caught them off guard.
Howe Ridge had two previous lightning-caused fire strikes before — one in 2015 and another in 2017. Neither had grown more than a couple of acres.
But with hot, dry, conditions and a stiff wind, the fire quickly grew in size on Aug. 12, 2018.
Two CL-215s aircraft, also known as “super scoopers” were brought in to drop water on the blaze. They started about 11 a.m. Aug. 12 but by about 3 p.m., when it was time to refuel, they were pulled off.
Firefighters again tried to hike to the fire, but were not able to engage directly because of fire behavior and the difficult terrain, which is illustrated in the video.
The aircraft weren’t being effective either, noted fire manager Jesse Best.
“This fire moved down hill as fast as you’d watch a crown fire move up hill,” Best, a longtime firefighter with the state Department of Natural Resources said. Best was incident commander on the fire about 24 hours after it started. He also fought the Robert Fire 15 years prior.
Longtime park ranger Kyle Johnson, who had recently retired but was part of the firefighting team, concurred that the fire showed extreme and unpredictable behavior.
“This was something that was off the charts,” he said.
Johnson had spent decades on fire crews both in and out of the Park Service during his career.
He noted that the fire hadn’t burned downhill all day, but things changed rapidly as evening approached. He became very concerned when a spot fire was noted east of the Lake McDonald Ranger Station.
By 7:30 p.m. rangers had evacuated Kelly’s Camp as the fire bore down on the private residences. Some people fled by boat.
Two hikers that were camped at the Lake McDonald backcountry campground initially tried to drive through the flames, but they abandoned their car and were rescued by boat. Their car was destroyed in the fire.
Some residents at the time of the blaze said they were never notified to evacuate. They did it on their own volition.
Whatever the case, one ranger said that if they had stayed in Kelly’s camp 10 more minutes, there was a possibility they would have never made it out.
All told, about 1,000 people were evacuated in the vicinity of the fire from about 7 to 10 p.m. noted ranger Micah Alley.
At 8:38 p.m. several buildings were on fire at the Wheeler Cabin compound, save for the main cabin. Firefighters saved that building after they saw smoke coming out of the eaves. They used a fire extinguisher inside the cabin to put out the initial fire in the inside of the roof and then sprayed the ceiling with water.
Fire officer Jeremy Harker said the roof of the Lake McDonald Ranger Station was on fire, too.
Firefighters threw a sprinkler on top of it to put the fire out.
Not everyone evacuated. Private landowners who stayed say they put out fires near their homes with buckets that night, as flames licked the sides of their homes.
The fire was so hot it bubbled the paint off the homes.
There will be no written report on the fire, called a “lessons learned” report that often follows fires of this magnitude.
“The video is a stand-alone product with no plans for a written report at this time,” said Park Service spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo.
Meanwhile, residents plan to rebuild at Kelly’s Camp. This summer electrical and phone services are being extended to the camp. Three cabins from Kelly’s Camp survived the blaze.