YEAR OF FLAMES, Part 1: An intense, ‘epic’ fire season

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Smoke from the Reynolds Creek Fire boils above St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park on July 21. State Rep. Jenny Eck, who was hosting a delegation from Australia on a tour of the park, took this photo of the fast-moving wildfire. The flames torched a car and a historic cabin and forced visitors to abandon their vehicles on the park’s most popular roadway while officials evacuated hotels, campgrounds, homes and trails. (Jenny Eck via AP)

In Northwest Montana and the Rocky Mountain Front, more than 529 reported wildfires scorched 219,000 acres this summer and early fall, with a fire suppression price tag in excess of $45 million.

It was a historic year, but certainly not the worst the region has seen in recent years.

By comparison, the fires of 2003 covered 310,000 acres in Northwest Montana, including the Robert and Wedge Canyon fires that each exceeded 50,000 acres and burned into Glacier National Park.

In 2007, 1,871 fires in the region (including the Rocky Mountain Front) burned through close to 400,000 acres. That year, the Chippy Creek Fire in the Salish Mountains north of Hot Springs covered almost 100,000 acres. Four other fires topped 30,000 acres.

Fire incident commanders, analysts and resource managers have characterized 2015 as an especially intense fire year — not necessarily in terms of total acreage, but by the daunting proliferation of separate wildfires burning across the region by mid-August.

As early as late spring, conditions for a significant fire season were ripening. With an eye to the meager precipitation totals and fast-vanishing snowpack, state fire officials in May began urging residents to take extra precautions fireproofing their homes and properties.

Summer kicked off with the Flathead Valley’s hottest June in the record books and included multiple single-day records.

The month’s average temperature was six degrees above normal.

As a 33-day rainless streak stretched into July, indicators of fuel dryness in the region hit all-time records during several days-long stretches from mid-June into August.

The Glacier Rim Fire up the North Fork didn’t get very big, but at 100 acres it was still notable for having occurred as early as June — typically one of the two wettest months of the year. Fire officials at the time remarked that fuels were as dry as they would typically expect by late July or early August.

With July came the first significant fire: the Reynolds Creek Fire.

Beginning east of Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, it quickly chewed through a broad swath of the park’s mature conifer forest. Powerful winds pushed the fire east toward the town of St. Mary and allowed it to cover an estimated 4,000 acres in the first 24 hours.

Vacationers were quickly evacuated ahead of the fire and park staffers fanned out onto hiking trails to get visitors out of danger. One panicked family captured the advancing flames on cellphone cameras as they drove away.

Campers in park campgrounds and some residents near St. Mary were evacuated as a result, and — during the middle of the tourist season — the east side of Going-to-the-Sun Road was closed for more than two weeks.

An aggressive firefighting response followed, and it was briefly the highest-priority wildfire in the country. Because it came before the nationwide strain on firefighting resources to come in the following months, the 4,850-acre Reynolds Creek Fire was also the most expensive: Glacier spent nearly $13 million suppressing it.

In size, however, it was soon dwarfed by the Thompson Fire two and a half weeks later. Glacier’s largest of the year, the wildfire consumed 21,931 acres in the remote Nyack drainage in the south-central park of the park.

Two days after it was first reported, the Thompson Fire exploded by nearly 10,000 acres in one day, with a boiling smoke plume soaring some 40,000 feet into a clear, blue sky. The massive white cloud was easily visible from throughout the Flathead Valley.

Stanton Creek Lodge chef John Antonucci likened it to “a giant cauliflower stalk in the sky” and one caller to the Daily Inter Lake compared it to a volcano.

It was eventually brought under the authority of the firefighting team handling the Sheep Fire, which in late August surged briefly out of control and threatened the community of Essex. Residents were evacuated for four days.

In mid-August, with fuel humidity levels at or near record lows, a system of thunderstorms rolled through the region, bringing little moisture but plentiful lightning strikes in the bone-dry mountains of the Kootenai and Flathead national forests. In less than a week, more than a 100 fires were burning simultaneously.

The state’s largest fire this year, the Bear Creek Fire, occurred during that time.

When the sun rose Aug. 20, it was reported at 465 acres. By sunset, it was estimated at more than 17,000 acres after strong winds blew away a temperature inversion in the Flathead National Forest’s Spotted Bear Ranger District.

During its rapid spread into the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, it raged through eight miles of thickly timbered mountain, jumping the South Fork of the Flathead River and burning through the Gorge Creek and Meadow Creek trailheads.

While all visitors, outfitter staffers and livestock were safely evacuated ahead of the rampage, outfitters preparing for their busy season were devastated by the loss of business just ahead of the start of hunting season. Firefighters, forest personnel and other workers worked overtime to get the trails back into shape and help them salvage part of their season.

The Bear Creek Fire eventually grew to 70,906 acres and was managed alongside the nearby 21,968-acre Trail Creek Fire, another lightning-caused fire burning in the Spotted Bear area.

In the Kootenai National Forest, the Clark Fork, Northeast Kootenai and Goat Rock complexes of fires burned simultaneously over a combined 29,000 acres and included more than a dozen separate wildfires.

Perhaps the most visible fire of the year — the Marston Fire — was reported Aug. 11 to the northeast of Murphy Lake.

It eventually grew to about 7,000 acres and made up the bulk of the Northeast Kootenai Complex of fires. Passers-by on U.S. 93 between Stryker and Fortine could easily see the smoke plume and flames. It was also visible from the shores of Whitefish Lake.

The Napoleon Fire, which would become part of the Clark Fork Complex, advanced to within a quarter-mile of residential structures north of Noxon and Heron, prompting evacuations along six miles of Montana 56. Then at the end of August, a surge in activity at the Goat Rock Complex led to the one-day evacuation of several neighborhoods in south Libby.

East of the divide, the Spotted Eagle Fire made up the lion’s share of the Rocky Mountain Ranger District Fires, a complex that burned through more than 64,000 acres.

During an Aug. 27 interview, Greg Poncin, a Kalispell-based Type I incident commander, told the Daily Inter Lake, “I’ve seen fire seasons that have started much earlier, but nothing has been so intense over such a short period of time.”

Diane Hutton, the incident commander in charge of the Clark Fork Complex of fires, called it “an epic year.”

By the time September rolled around, just 1.09 inches of rain in the three preceding months had left Northwest Montana with its driest summer on record, and one of the hottest.

Warm, dry weather persisted late into the year, although fire activity was relatively muted in September and October. Fire officials continued to warn of persistent high fire danger during the early fall months, but a season-ending rainstorm finally drenched the region at the end of October, putting the brakes on the marathon fire season.

Forest officials are now working to repair trail beds damaged by the wildfires and shop out salvage sales for portions of the thousands of acres affected by the fire.

As a necessary component of the region’s ecosystems, the apparent devastation of fire will guarantee the range of habitats required by the Northern Rockies’ flora and fauna. A new succession of forbs, grasses, trees and wildlife will eventually replace the landscapes of blackened trees and open up new feeding grounds.

And visitors to Glacier National Park and the surrounding forests can observe the process of regrowth while enjoying views of mountain peaks, waterfalls and other sights that for decades had lain hidden.


Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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