Thursday storm sparks fires, power outages

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  • Smoke from a fire above Sprague Creek in Glacier National Park drifts over the high peaks near Lake McDonald Friday morning. (Chris Peterson photo)

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    Flathead Electric Cooperative workers repair a power pole and lines in this 2017 file photo. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake file)

  • Smoke from a fire above Sprague Creek in Glacier National Park drifts over the high peaks near Lake McDonald Friday morning. (Chris Peterson photo)

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    Flathead Electric Cooperative workers repair a power pole and lines in this 2017 file photo. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake file)

WEST GLACIER — A violent storm that moved through Glacier National Park Thursday evening triggered about 150 lightning strikes throughout the park, sparking multiple fires.

The thunderstorm also had heavy rain, but it was brief — lasting about 10 minutes.

The fires were in the Apgar Lookout area, the Nyack area, Sprague drainage, and Camas drainage. The Sprague drainage fire was reported at 10 acres Friday afternoon. Smoke from the fire was drifting over the high peaks that rim Lake McDonald.

Trail closures were in place at Apgar Lookout Trail, Howe Ridge Trail, Camas Trail, Trout Lake Trail, the Sperry Trail from Lake McDonald to Sperry Chalet, John’s Lake Trail and Lincoln Lake Trail.

The Sprague fire cut off the return route for dozens of people staying at the Sperry Chalet, leaving them the choice of remaining until rangers tell them it’s safe or hiking out along a longer and more difficult trail, park officials said Friday.

Park rangers also planned to lead out 39 other hikers who were staying in backcountry campsites near fires that broke out, Glacier spokeswoman Lauren Alley said.

There are typically between 40 and 50 guests and 10 staff members at the chalet each night, with most visitors arriving by foot or horse along a steep trail nearly 7 miles from Lake McDonald Lodge on the park’s main roadway.

A lightning strike ignited the fire in the forest somewhere between the lodge and the chalet. Neither structure is threatened, but park officials determined that it was unsafe for those at the chalet to return by the same trail Friday.

Thirty-nine of the 42 guests staying at the Sperry Chalet decided to hike out and three stayed behind, said Suzie Menke, the office manager of Benton Chalets Inc., which runs the chalet.

They must take a rugged trail more than 13 miles long that crosses two mountain passes and can take eight to 10 hours to walk. That trail ends up on the eastern side of the park.

For those who stay, the chalet has running water, a full-service kitchen and 17 private rooms — but it doesn’t have electricity and only spotty cellphone coverage.

“The good news is they got resupplied yesterday,” Alley said.

Despite the sudden outbreak of fires, most areas of the park are still open.

The Thursday storm also sparked a fire on the Flathead Indian Reservation east of Flathead Lake between Polson and Bigfork. A Super Scooper aircraft and helicopters helped doused the 17-acre blaze on Friday morning.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the Flathead Forest also reported a handful of small fires after Thursday’s storm, burning about 0.1 acre each.

Wind also caused problems in the Flathead Valley Thursday night. About 2,763 Flathead Electric Cooperative members were without power Friday morning.

According to FEC spokeswoman Wendy Ostrom-Price, the outages stretched from north of Evergreen, into Columbia Falls and up U.S. 2 past West Glacier.

The power was restored in Columbia Falls and the Canyon area about 9:30 a.m.

About 1,700 co-op members in Whitefish were without power for a few hours on Thursday night. Power was resorted to that area by about 9:30 p.m.

A significant change in weather is expected this weekend, which could further amplify fire danger across the region. Hot, dry, breezy and unstable conditions are expected Saturday followed by a chance for overnight thunderstorms lasting into Sunday morning, according to the Flathead Office of Emergency Services. The breezy, unstable atmosphere Saturday night could promote active fire behavior well into the morning hours in some places. On Sunday, stronger winds and additional thunderstorms are expected as a cold front pushes through the region.

A red flag warning is in effect for all of western Montana.

Federal and state fire managers planned to raise the National Fire Preparedness Level to its highest point on Friday. That Level 5 signals most firefighting resources are being used and that assistance may be needed from military and other nations.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock Friday issued a new executive order declaring a fire emergency for the entire state.

This declaration allows the state to continue to mobilize additional state resources and the Montana National Guard to combat fires, and to expend funds as necessary, a press release from Bullock’s office states.

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