ST. MARY — Descending into this small town at the East Entrance to Glacier National Park on Tuesday morning on U.S. Highway 89, you wouldn’t have known a wildfire was burning within 3½ miles.
After a day of cooling rain, the only evidence of fire — from a perfect vantage point to see any — was a wisp or two of smoke rising far in the distance in the St. Mary Valley that, if you didn’t know better, you might think came from the chimney of a cabin.
But five miles north of this town, another town says otherwise.
A fire camp at Chewing Blackbones Campground is home to the almost 700 people now assigned to the Reynolds Creek fire in Glacier. That so many are here — including Greg Poncin’s Type 1 incident management team – for a 3,170-acre fire, tells you two things.
One, there’s a lot at stake with the Reynolds Creek fire — from a national park whose iconic Going-to-the-Sun Road is partially closed because of it, and businesses in and outside the park that are suffering because of it, to a Blackfeet Indian Tribe that lost valuable timber when a 2006 Glacier fire crossed the park’s boundary and entered their reservation.
And two, despite a worsening drought plaguing much of the western United States, there is a surprising lack of competition for firefighting resources right now.
“We’re pretty fortunate there’s not so many fires that resources are not as scarce as they sometimes are,” Poncin said Tuesday. “We rely on Hotshot crews, especially in this type of terrain.”
And they have eight of those, many local ones that, in another summer, might have already been assigned to other wildfires. Also, seven helicopters, including three large “sky cranes” and a double-rotor CH-47.
“It’s unusual to be able to get four heavy helicopters,” Poncin said.
Type 1 incident management teams are sent to take command over the most challenging of disasters.
Poncin’s team has dealt with several in the seven years the Kalispell man has been an incident commander. That includes the 2011 Monument fire on the Arizona-Mexico border.
Started by immigrants who were creating a diversion as they crossed into the United States illegally, the Monument fire burned 80 homes and forced the evacuation of 13,000 people.
Compared to that, Poncin allowed, the Reynolds Creek fire is “pretty standard fare.”
A week ago, in the hours after it started, it looked like it would be anything but.
“It got out and made a pretty spectacular run, a lot of it by spotting out ahead,” Poncin said. “It’s what led them to order us in the first place. That initial run was caused by a wind event, and they saw where it could easily cross out of the park.”
One of the main goals has been to stop the Reynolds Creek fire — now 45 percent contained — short of the reservation.
“The Blackfeet Nation did not want it to get out of the park,” Poncin said. “In 2006, they lost a tremendous amount of timber” in the Red Eagle fire, which burned 34,000 acres. “Their last big stand is in front of this fire, just outside the park.”
Smoke until snowfall
When the Sun Road fully reopens — and no one is willing to hazard a guess when that will be — the Reynolds Creek fire will still be burning.
“People will see smoke till there’s a solid snowfall,” said fire information officer Thomas Kempton. Stumps and roots will continue to smolder until winter has the final say, and some trails could remain closed.
Before Going-to-the-Sun can reopen for its easternmost 18 miles, Kempton said, feller crews must remove trees near the road that have been compromised by the fire.
“They’ll make two full passes looking for trees with charring or roots that are burning,” Kempton said. “They could be 50 feet off the road, but because they’re so tall, they have the potential to fall on the road.”
Firefighters also have two miles of line to construct northeast of Rising Sun, Poncin said, and spot fires to put out in the Two Dog Flats area. While firefighting vehicles are active on Going-to-the-Sun Road, tourists and their vehicles won’t be.
“It may be three days before we get that line in,” Poncin said.
Analysts will also be brought in to assess fire potential in the Rose Creek drainage, where any fire spread could threaten to cross into the North Boulder Creek drainage.
That would have the potential to carry the fire into the Many Glacier area.
“We’re working for the park,” Poncin said, and Glacier officials will make the call on reopening Glacier’s biggest attraction.
The road will likely reopen, Poncin said, when “they’re comfortable that we’ve done what they want done.”
Park access grows
Visitors to Glacier will have their access to the park extended on Wednesday, when the Sun Road opens from the west to Logan Pass. (The east side of the road will remain closed from the pass to the St. Mary Visitor Center at the East Entrance.)
Park officials warned of possible delays and congestion on the road, as many visitors who’ve waited for access to Logan Pass head to that vantage.
If Going-to-the-Sun becomes too congested, park rangers may turn vehicles around at Big Bend or even at Avalanche Creek for public safety, according to information officer Denise Germann.
Parking is limited at Logan Pass, so visitors may not be able to park and go inside the visitor center. She encouraged the use of alternative transportation, including Glacier’s free shuttle buses or the concessionaire-operated Red Buses and Sun Tours.
Germann also warned that the Reynolds Creek fire cannot be seen from the pass.
The Logan Pass Visitor Center will reopen Wednesday as well, with hours of operation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Highline Trail will be open, as well as the trail to Hidden Lake Overlook and Hidden Lake.
Logan Pass will be closed to overnight parking, and overnight parking along Going-to-the-Sun Road is not encouraged.
People may be surprised when they drive through the Reynolds Creek fire, Kempton said.
“By no means is all this black,” he said, pointing at a map showing the outline of the fire on the north side of St. Mary Lake. “There are islands of green. It’s kind of a mosaic. You’ll see places where it obviously burned hot, but others — when the wind was blowing — where it might have burned the top, but the bottom is still green.”
“There are places where it’s just a moonscape,” Poncin agreed, “but where conditions subsided, it was more of a torching and crown-fire thing.”
That, Kempton said, left several places — St. Mary Falls, Rising Sun and Sun Point — relatively unscathed.
Pumps supplying water to sprinklers helped keep Rising Sun Campground and Rising Sun Motor Inn safe, Kempton said, and campers who had to evacuate so quickly they left all their camping gear behind have been reunited with their possessions, he added.
On a trip through the fire area during Monday’s cool weather, Kempton said wildlife was already returning.
“I saw two bucks, a coyote and a yearling bear in and around Rising Sun,” he said.