Last week the Park Service, nearly a year after the event, release a “video narrative” of the Howe Ridge Fire.
“The intent of this video is to capture the basic chronology events during the first 36 hours of the Howe Ridge Fire, ignited by lightning in Glacier National Park on the evening of August 11, 2018. The National Park Service Regional Division of Fire and Aviation Management sent a team to complete a video documenting the first 36 hours of the Howe Ridge Fire so that other similar areas can learn from these circumstances. The National Park Service believes the video will be of value to the wildland fire community to learn more about the fire’s extreme behavior, and so that residents living in areas prone to wildfire in the northern Rockies can better prepare themselves for evacuation proceedings,” the video maintains.
I have a lot of problems with this production.
Let me make one thing clear: I’m not blaming the firefighters. I think they did what they could do, considering the circumstances of the blaze.
The day before the lightning storm that caused the blaze, temperatures were either at or around 100 degrees. So it was plenty dry and with all that down timber from the Robert Fire of 2003 jackstrawed on Howe Ridge, a fire was going to burn, given the right circumstances.
A lot of firefighters just didn’t think it would burn as intensely as it did.
As someone who has photographed blazes of various degrees over the past 20 years, I didn’t think the fire would burn like it did, either.
But what leaves me baffled is the series of events that happened after about 3 p.m. By 3 p.m. it was plainly evident that the “super scooper” airplanes, which drop thousands of gallons of water on a fire at a time, weren’t going to work. The fire was just too big by then and just too intense.
Granted, it hadn’t dropped far down the hillside, but it was coming down, for sure. I have the photos to prove it.
That, in my opinion, was the time to clear the trails nearby and the backcountry campgrounds and start to get people the heck out of there. Instead, the Park Service had people setting up spotting scopes at Lake McDonald Lodge so people could watch the fire.
I know this because I watched them.
Instead they waited far too long and they ended up with a backcountry camper trying to get out through the flames. The campers abandoned their car (which was consumed by the fire) and ended up being rescued by a boat.
That should have never happened.
Unfortunately, the video takes no critical look at why the Park Service, even though it clearly had a large fire on its hands, decided to wait to evacuate folks, particularly the backcountry campers, who had absolutely no hope of any shelter from the fire.
It takes about 45 minutes to an hour to walk from the trailhead at Kelly’s camp down to the Lake McDonald backcountry campground. I’ve done it many times. The Park Service had plenty of time to get those folks out.
Inholders at Kelley’s Camp said at the time that some of them never did get an evacuation notice — they just got out on their own. Now granted, some chose to ignore the notice and stayed at their properties. One party in the video did stay and used buckets of water to put out flames near their homes.
Another problem with the video is it doesn’t identify anyone.
Not one of the speakers are identified. That makes zero sense. These people are not children. They’re grown adults and outside of the landowners, they’re seasoned professionals, making important decisions, not only about human safety, but about the very future of the landscape.
There was a plus side to Howe Ridge, believe it or not.
The fire did a great job of thinning the lodgepole forests both on Howe Ridge itself and in the Camas drainage.
Today those forests are largely a fantastic mosaic, blooming with fields of wildflowers, and promise to be great browse for deer, elk and moose for decades to come.
That, my friends, is the true lesson learned.
Chris Peterson is the editor of the Hungry Horse News.