Some days when the wind blew hot and dry from the southwest in the summer of 2003, a series of billowing smoke columns could be seen towering over the Continental Divide from the Canadian border to the Mission Mountains south of Swan Lake.
The columns were staggering for onlookers who knew what was generating them — huge forest fires, many of them making runs toward rural communities.
By most measures, the fire season of 2003 was historic for Northwest Montana. Not since 1910 had there been such an array of wildfire in the region, not to mention the rest of the northern Rockies.
By mid-September there were 16 large fires in Northwest Montana that ended up covering more than 300,000 acres.
Individual fire acreages were impressive: the Robert Fire covered 57,570 acres, Wedge Canyon 53,325 acres, Little Salmon Complex 88,000 acres, Rampage Complex 24,488 acres, Blackfoot Lake Complex 29,836 acres and Middle Fork Complex 11,851 acres.
Combined, the 2003 fires accounted for roughly half the acreage burned on the Flathead National Forest and Glacier National Park over the previous 20 years.
“The year 2003 will go down as a very historic fire year,” declared Steve Barrett, a fire ecologist who has studied long-term fire histories across Northwest Montana.
“This summer, we had such a wide array of ignitions on the landscape. And for a while there, no one was talking about the elephant in the living room,” Barrett said, referring to the season’s similarities to 1910, a year characterized not so much by large, isolated fires, but by scores of fires that were perfectly positioned for explosive growth.
Driven by high winds, the 1910 fires grew by 75 percent on Aug. 20 and 21. The “Big Blowup,” as it is known, pushed the fires over 3.5 million acres, burning half a dozen towns and killing 85 people in western Montana and northern Idaho.
The 2003 season actually had potential to be worse, with so many scattered large fires vulnerable to drastic growth. But the season ended with a wet cold front, rather than the type of dry weather front that drove the 1910 fires out of control.
At the peak of the season, there were 14,000 firefighters and support personnel working on fires in the Northern Rockies. And by the end of the season, the region had cycled through a whopping 84 incident management teams, most of them working on the major fire complexes in Northwest Montana.
The situation strained scarce resources. For nearly a week, the region’s main warehouse for firefighting supplies had an unprecedented succession of days in which more than $1 million worth of supplies were shipped out.
The 2003 fire season was not entirely unpredictable. Fire bosses across Northwest Montana knew forests were bone dry by midsummer.
Indexes used to monitor fuel conditions on a historic scale going back 20 years showed light and heavy fuels were primed for ignition, exceeding levels set in the severe 1988 and 2000 fire seasons.
But even then, fire officials were somewhat surprised to see the fire season get under way in mid-July in a region where the fire season historically doesn’t begin until late August or early September.
Northwest Montana’s season started when initial attack firefighters responded to a lightning ignition at the head of Wedge Canyon in the Flathead’s North Fork Valley on July 18. The fire was poised to make a down-canyon run toward scattered homes in the valley. Within a week, that’s exactly what it did.
The fire ended up roaring across an eight-mile bulldozer line, considered the last line of defense in preventing the fire from spreading to the east. More than 100 homes were threatened by the fire, but most survived because of extensive preparations by homeowners and firefighters.
Six cabins survived after the fire jumped across Tepee Lake, many of them surrounded by patches of green grass and green trees.
But the fire wiped out six cabins and 14 outbuildings on its run across the North Fork River into Glacier National Park.
To make matters worse, other fires erupted just to the south in late July. The Robert Fire emerged in the lower North Fork Valley on July 23. The fire defied a massive initial attack that included four air tankers, blowing across the North Fork Road and the river into Glacier Park within a few hours.
At the same time, the Trapper Fire had become a threat, burning just west of the Continental Divide in Glacier Park. That day, the fire made a rapid uphill run toward the Granite Park Chalet. It also advanced on Going-to-the-Sun Road as park tourists watched. It ultimately closed the historic mountaintop highway.
In Glacier alone, fires eventually covered 145,000 acres during 2003. Another 165,000 acres burned outside the park in Northwest Montana.
Choking smoke and the fires forced two separate evacuations of Apgar Village and much of the Lake McDonald Valley. The area was first closed by fire from July 24 to Aug. 4 as the Robert Fire pressed its way toward Apgar Mountain, a landmark that looms over West Glacier and Apgar, the park’s largest developed area.
The imminent threat prompted what became the most dramatic and drastic firefighting effort of the season — a complete “burnout” on Apgar Mountain.
Fire bosses were certain that defensive or direct attack methods would be ineffective in stopping the Robert Fire, which had developed powerful momentum after burning through nearly 10,000 acres.
During a four-day stretch, a fire specialist from Alaska led a series of methodical burnouts that essentially robbed some 5,000 acres of fuel from the advancing fire.
The operation became breathtaking on July 31, when the most visible face of Apgar Mountain vanished in a haze of flame and smoke. At that point, the burnout put off a smoke column that could be seen 40 miles away in the Flathead Valley.
The Robert Fire ultimately did slip past the northern portion of the burned-out areas. Driven by high winds, the fire jumped the Camas Road and made a rapid run up the north shore of Lake McDonald. That prompted a second evacuation at Agpar Village that lasted from Aug. 10 through Aug. 15.
Outside the park, fires continued to rapidly explode into large blazes that surpassed the capabilities of initial attack firefighters.
The Crazy Horse Fire, for instance, became an instant priority after it spread from the Mission Mountain Wilderness, covering 4,000 acres in a couple of days and instantly threatened homes in the Swan Valley.
A sudden, unpredicted lightning blitz on Aug. 19 led to a rash of new fires in the Flathead’s South Fork and Middle Fork drainages. The most troublesome emerged just west of Hungry Horse Dam, creating an overnight threat to the town of Hungry Horse.
Those fires eventually crossed the entire north end of Hungry Horse Reservoir. But even as firefighters were able to hold the fires in check on the other side of the reservoir, a scattering of fires on the Swan Mountain Range began to mushroom to a point where they merged, becoming a fire complex.
Throughout most of the summer, that’s exactly what happened in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. With firefighting resources tied up elsewhere, and “fire use” strategies in place for certain wilderness fires, a collection of fires called the Little Salmon fire complex burned together.
At one point, they completely surrounded a Forest Service cabin complex at Big Prairie. The historic buildings were saved, however, by virtue of the open spaces at Big Prairie, along with the protection work of a contingent of firefighters that spent weeks at the administrative site.
By the time the season was winding down, the Little Salmon fire complex had covered more than 88,000 acres in the heart of the wilderness.
With the exception of the Crazy Horse Fire, all of the large fires in Northwest Montana came to an end as a result of cool, wet weather that arrived in early September.
The aftermath of the fires can be measured in different ways. For Barrett, the fires were “right on cycle” with historic fire regimes that have shaped most forested areas in northwest Montana.