GLACIER NATIONAL PARK — High winds pushed the Sprague fire into Glacier National Park's historic Sperry Chalet Thursday, burning it down, according to InciWeb.

"A highly skilled group of firefighters were staged at the Sperry Chalet over the last week. ... The firefighters, supported by three helicopters, made a valiant stand to save the structure but were unsuccessful in saving the main Sperry Chalet," the national wildfire information service posted shortly after 7 p.m.

The chalet had been closed since Aug. 15, after the discovery of the Sprague fire, which was sparked by a lightning storm on Aug. 10 and tore through steep, heavily forested terrain that has not burned since the 1700s. But until Thursday, that closure was couched as a matter of the fire posing a danger to trail access, not to the chalet itself.

For days, firefighters used an extensive hose lay pump system to defend the chalet and its outbuildings, Peri Suenram of the wildland fire management team said Thursday evening. 

But Thursday afternoon, the winds predicted by a Red Flag Warning that had been in effect for more than a day finally kicked up and the fire "made a really big push," Suenram said. "One small spot fire started on the cookhouse roof, but they were able to put it out. Shortly after 6 p.m., though, we got notified that the Sperry Chalet main building was completely engulfed in flames."

The team of five firefighters remained on site Thursday night, she said. "We're not able to get them out right now, but they've assured us they are SAFE in capital letters."

Those firefighters are continuing to deploy the system in place to try and save the remaining four structures, she said. "We're continuing to support them with bucket drops.

The destruction of the chalet came a day after the park's Lake McDonald Lodge closed for the season because of hazardous levels of smoke. In 2003, the Roberts fire forced the evacuation of an estimated 3,000 people from the Lake McDonald Valley, including the lodge, Apgar and park headquarters. 

Sperry is one of the park's two backcountry chalets. While guests at the park's other chalet, Granite Park, toted their own food, those at Sperry had meals, drinks and bed linens provided.

The chalet dates to 1912, when a crew of Italian stonemasons built the kitchen and dining hall in a glacial cirque at 6,580 feet, looking down at Lake McDonald and west toward the Whitefish Range, according to Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison, authors of “View with a Room.”

In 1913, the kitchen began serving guests who stayed in a tent camp. That same year, work began on the chalet whose 17 guest rooms could hold 40 to 50 overnight guests, who hiked in.

Comments stacked up on Glacier National Park's Facebook page after it posted the news Thursday evening."Sad," read several. "Heartbroken," said others.

Suenram echoed them in her recital of the day's events.

"It's sad," she said. "Oh, gosh, it's sad."

***

The poor weather conditions troubling firefighters are expected to stretch into the weekend.

The likelihood of thunderstorms was expected to peak Friday or Saturday, bringing lightning that could start new blazes and wind gusts that could fuel existing ones. A Red Flag Warning was in effect until 9 p.m. Thursday for many of the region’s fires, with crews largely unable to conduct new controlled burns and waiting at the ready to attack any new starts..

Thw Lolo Peak fire put up a new plume Thursday evening, causing a stir on social media.

"The fire was kind of sitting in one spot for five to six days," said fire information officer Todd Schoeder, but it started moving again Wednesday and kept going Thursday. It spotted south of One Horse Creek and continues to burn on a north-facing slope about 1.5 miles west of the mouth of the canyon, Schoeder said Thursday night.

Retardant was laid down at the rate of 20,000 to 30,000 gallons an hour Thursday, he said. "We were hitting it hard all day ... and we'll have eyes on it all night long." 

Late Thursday night, "all of a sudden the wind laid down, the fire laid down," and the decision was made for burnout operations south from One Horse Creek to Bass Creek in order to strengthen the buffer along the primary control line, Schroeder said. Three 20-person crews, eight engines, and two water tenders, and 110 people, were on the operation, he said.

Several evacuation warnings have been lifted along the fire’s perimeter, where the line has been controlled and fuels burned through. Warnings were lifted in the Highway 12 corridor from mile marker 24 near and including Arena Drive to the Highway 93 junction in Lolo. In the Highway 93 corridor, the evacuation warning was lifted for residents starting at mile marker 79 near and including the Gravel Pit off of Old Highway 93 and the McClain Creek Road north to the Highway 12 junction. 

The evacuation warning remains in place in the Bear Creek and Elk Creek areas on Highway 12 east of Lolo and in the Highway 93 corridor from McClain Creek Road south to Bass Creek Road.

Also on Thursday, firefighters started preparing areas for burning operations to connect the already burned blocks created as a buffer along the primary control line south from One Horse Creek to Bass Creek. As the conditions allow, firefighters will conduct these smaller burnout operations in the upcoming days to protect residences in the Highway 93 corridor, according to InciWeb, the national wildfire information service.

Officials on the Rice Ridge fire issued new evacuation warnings Wednesday night for about 90 residences in the Seeley Lake area from Tamarack Resort to Bear Grass Lane and extending toward Camp Creek.

Fire officials said they would host a community meeting 6 p.m. Friday in Ovando at the elementary school.

***

The only bright spot Thursday came in terms of air quality.

"Hot dippity dog," crowed air quality specialist Sarah Coefield in her Thursday-afternoon report. "We're seeing legit valley-scouring winds this afternoon, and some parts of the county have seen significant air quality improvements."

Clearwater Junction, Arlee, the Potomac Valley and the Swan Valley saw Moderate air quality Thursday afternoon, while elsewhere the air quality stood at Unhealthy for Sensitive groups, reported Coefield, of the Missoula City-County Health Department.

But what's good news for firefighters — that Thursday's winds were predicted to calm after midnight — isn't so great on the smoke front, with smoke likely pooling near active fires, Coefield wrote.

"Florence, Lolo and Seely Lake may have Very Unhealthy or Hazardous air quality. The rest of us are likely to see ground-level haze and a lot of overhead smoke in the morning," she said of Friday's outlook.

And she reminded people that Seeley Lake continues to have “incredibly bad air quality,” hovering around three times the particulate concentration necessary to be deemed hazardous by technical standards.

“It was 10 times worse in Seeley Lake (than Missoula) and they’ve been seeing numbers like this on a near-daily basis for the past month,” Coefield wrote. “The folks in Seeley Lake are seeing smoke like we've never seen before, and a lot of them are suffering. We should not become numb to the numbers.”

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Education Reporter

Education and special projects reporter at The Missoulian.