Fire officials on the Sprague Fire burning in Glacier National Park had good news and bad news at a public fire meeting at Park Headquarters Wednesday night. The good news, they told a standing room only crowd of more than 150 people, is that the smoke choking the Flathead Valley has also been dampening fire activity, holding the Sprague Fire at roughly 13,000 acres.
The bad news is that's about to change, thanks to an incoming front expected to breeze through this weekend.
"The outlook looks pretty glum," said Phil Manuel, the incident meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
"About Friday, there's a threat not just of a little bit of rain, but also lightning. That could cause new fires. But more importantly when the front goes through early Saturday morning, the wind is going to start to blow again. The smoke that you see outside now will start to move again, the visibilities will improve, and the air quality will improve" Manuel said.
The side effect, Manuel says, is that once that smoke cover lifts, fires will likely become more active. This pattern of frontal passages is expected to become more frequent in September.
Another challenge with the Sprague Fire is how dry dead and living fuels are. We're riding the heels the third driest July and August since those stats started being recorded in 1948.
Tim Bumgarner, a long term analyst on the Sprague Fire's self-titled "Geek Squad," describes the dry conditions firefighters are facing even in the high, rocky alpine, like this:
"It looks like all that rock is going to stop fire from spreading, right? That's what rock does. There's no fuel to burn. Well, how dry is it this year? It's so dry that rocks are burning," Bumgarner said.
There is one less dry area near the Sprague Fire. Just over the ridgeline on the fire's northwest front, the lodgepole and tamarack forest gives way to cedar and hemlock, says fire behavior analyst Boyd Lebeda.
"It's just a really unique rain forest, inland rain forest," Lebeda said. "The lake effect has got an effect on the growing site, it's a moister site. It's just different from the rest of the forest, and it's largely checked up along there."
Cedars and hemlocks once blanketed the area around West Glacier and Apgar, but they took a hit in a fire in 1929. Mark Biel is the natural resources program manager at Glacier National Park. He says that area now has a few cedar and hemlock saplings, but we likely won't see a cedar forest return there in our lifetimes.
"It can take anywhere up to two to three centuries for cedar-hemlock to come back as the dominant stand," Biel said.
Biel said the massive trees along the popular Trail of the Cedars are thought to date back to 1517. They form the easternmost cedar-hemlock forest in the country, and he says people are pretty attached to that area of the park.
"Watching people when they see some of those huge trees you can't even have four people put their arms fully around is fun to watch," Biel said. "I guess it's the scale people are taken by, they love it."
Fire crews have laid sprinkler systems and taken steps to protect the trail and a nearby campground, and fire behavior analyst Boyd Lebeda says the trees are so far doing a pretty good job of protecting themselves.
But if the trees do burn, that could be it for cedar and hemlock in that part of the forest. Biel cites research by Jerry Franklin, an ecologist at the University of Washington.
"He hypothesized that even if that area around Trail of the Cedars were to burn, that with today's climate, and how it's changed from the early 1500s, it would probably not come back as a cedar-hemlock stand, just because the precipitation regime has changed so much," Biel said.
The Trail of the Cedars is considered a value at risk, like the Lake McDonald Lodge complex and a smattering of houses hugging the north end of Lake McDonald. Flathead County has dispatched a task force to help with structure protection, and firefighters are using every resource locally available to prep homes and outbuildings.
Rick Sacca, Flathead County's emergency services manager, says the county recently invested in a system called Code Red to help get the word out about new evacuation warnings and orders.
"Same thing as you get an amber alert," Sacca said.
Finally, Glacier Park's Superintendent Jeff Mow says the loss of the Sperry Chalet triggered an investigation that will get underway once the fire is under control. No decisions will be made about the future of the former National Historic Landmark until it is safe to access the area.
"Losing the Sperry Chalet felt like you lost a member of the family, there's no two ways about it," Mow said.
Mow added the Sprague Fire is not the only fire burning in Glacier, though much of the eastern side of the park remains open. To the north, Glacier's sister park in Canada, Waterton Lakes National Park, has closed the entire park except for the Waterton townsite and its access highway, and the Chief Mountain Highway.