On a sunny day in December the North Lake McDonald Road is quiet. Chickadees flit in the trees that weren’t burned to a crisp by last summer’s Howe Ridge Fire in Glacier National Park.
Five months after the 14,500-acre blaze, the foot of Glacier’s iconic Mount Stanton is littered with black and downed trees. The fire burned hot here, right down to the foot of Lake McDonald.
It also burned most of the structures in Kelly’s Camp, an enclave of private summer cabins at the end of the road that date back as far as the early 1900s. Three cabins survived the fire. The rest did not.
Shortly after the fire, many residents, who have long family ties to the land, indicated they would rebuild.
But there promises to be several challenges along the way.
Water was collected from a nearby creek and a small hydroelectric system provided electricity. Both were damaged by the fire. The creek itself was also razed — it’s now exposed to the elements with no shade to keep the water cool.
In addition, a small bridge that goes over the creek, and provides access to the Kelly’s Camp properties was also damaged by the fire. The bridge is passable by foot, but will likely have to be replaced at some point. The wooden planks show obvious signs of charring.
Homeowners will also have to meet Flathead County sewer regulations before they can rebuild. They also need a permit from Glacier Park.
Under county regulations, the existing septic system can only be used again if it previously had a valid permit.
If it doesn’t, it will have to meet the modern regulations, which provide for setbacks from neighboring properties and specific regulations designed to protect the groundwater and water bodies, in this case, Lake McDonald.
The groundwater in some places near Kelly’s camp bubbles up to the surface.
Under Glacier’s regulations, “No person shall construct, rebuild or alter any water supply or sewage disposal system without a written permit issued by the superintendent. The Superintendent will issue such permit only after receipt of written notification from the appropriate federal, state, or county officer that the plans for such system comply with state or county standards. There shall be no charge for such permits.”
Additionally, under Park regulations, people cannot live in a structure that doesn’t have a working and approved septic and water system.
“No person shall occupy any building or structure intended for human habitation, or use, unless such building is served by water supply and sewage disposal systems that comply with the standards prescribed by state and county laws and regulations applicable in the county within whose exterior boundaries such building is located,” the regulations state.
The regulations also allow for the Park to inspect septic systems from time to time, “in order to determine whether such system complies with the state and county standards: Provided, however, That inspection shall be made only upon consent of the occupant of the premises or pursuant to a warrant.”
Park spokeswoman Lauren Alley said the Park could be open to extending utilities like electrical power to Kelly’s Camp. She also said that some landowners do have water rights. Right now, however, things are in the preliminary stages, she noted.
“Moving forward, the Park would likely work with interested landowners to do any necessary compliance and issue a special use permit to allow for water collection based on an existing water right - if that was the route a landowner wanted to pursue,” she said.
The Park Service is still working on an investigation into the fire. Some homeowners were critical of the Park Service after the blaze and openly wondered why it wasn’t put out sooner.
Park Superintendent Jeff Mow at the time said the Park asked for a helicopter the night it started, but the Park was told one wasn’t available. The region saw several fires the night Howe Ridge started, all of them by a lightning storm that passed through.
The next day, Howe Ridge blossomed and then turned into a firestorm by evening, burning down to the shores of Lake McDonald.
Human losses aside, there are silver linings from the blaze.
The views from the flanks of Mount Stanton were opened up by the fire. The post fire landscape in Glacier usually comes with a host of wildflowers that bloom for several success years after a blaze.