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Howe Ridge fire sent pieces of Glacier National Park's history up in smoke
Howe Ridge fire | Glacier National Park

Howe Ridge fire sent pieces of Glacier National Park's history up in smoke

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Battling hot spots at remaining cabins

Eric Kildahl, front, looks back as Heather Hodges feeds him more hose as they battle hot spots near one of the remaining cabins in Kelly's Camp on Monday in Glacier National Park.

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK — The extent of damage caused by the Howe Ridge fire is becoming clear.

While park officials said a full assessment of the damage could take quite some time, they already have counted losses to historic buildings along Lake McDonald.

Kelly’s Camp, first homesteaded in 1894, was hit especially hard, with approximately seven private residences, another cabin, the main camp house and various outbuildings destroyed, according to the park. One Kelly’s Camp home survived, along with several other private homes and structures around North McDonald Road.

Further east, at the Wheeler camp once owned by U.S. Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, “The main Wheeler cabin did survive, after valiant firefighting efforts that saved it after it caught fire,” said a Glacier press release. However, the National Park Service believes that three outbuildings and the Wheeler boat house were lost.

Robin Wheeler Azqueta, great-granddaughter of the senator, said the park service took over the cottages and outbuildings after the death of her aunt in 2014. The aunt was the last remaining child of the senator, and Azqueta said four generations of Wheeler kin from across the country used to gather there every summer.

"It's a huge emotional loss for us more than anything else," Azqueta said, adding that her mother, Kendall Wheeler, watched as the structures burned Sunday from the McDonald Lake Lodge deck.

"The senator had 15 grandchildren and a whole slew of great grandchildren and this was the nucleus for our family,'' Azqueta said. "I was married there."

Since 2014, various groups have used the Wheeler cottages, but weren't allowed to stay overnight until improvements were made. An environmental analysis completed in January 2018 for the future of the Wheeler structures proposed leasing them out to raise money for the park's historic restoration activities, or using them as park offices or employee housing. 

Ansel Adams took his famous "Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park" black and white photograph from the beach at the property, Azqueta added.

The Lake McDonald ranger station was also saved after catching fire, but its boat house was lost.

“This is a heartbreaking time at the park,” said Park Superintendent Jeff Mow. “We’ve lost extremely important historic buildings that tell a piece of the park’s story, and multiple people have lost homes that have welcomed their families to the shores of Lake McDonald for generations.”

The fire has caused considerable uncertainty for owners of the approximately 200 private buildings around the lake. Montana Public Radio reported that about 70 homeowners attended a meeting on the fire Monday, and some criticized the Park Service’s handling of the evacuation.

Meanwhile, the fire’s size remained at about 2,500 acres Tuesday. Conditions were forecast to be calm, but hot and dry. Firefighters planned to continue suppressing spot fires along Lake McDonald’s north end, while CL-215 “superscooper” aircraft and a K-Max helicopter were deployed to drop water on the fire.

Lake McDonald Lodge, North McDonald Road, the Avalanche and Sprague campgrounds, the stretch of Going-to-the-Sun Road from the foot of Lake McDonald to Logan Pass, and adjacent hiking trails remain closed.

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