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Sperry Chalet

A bright orange "pumpkin," usually filled with water for firefighting, lies empty after the Sperry Chalet was engulfed in flames Aug. 31, 2017. 

From its inception, the Sprague fire proved to be a problem child.

On Aug. 11, a day after it was sparked by a thunderstorm, helicopters dropped buckets of water on what was a 10-acre fire, and a crew rappelled from a helicopter to clear an area where it could later land and bring in more firefighters.

Glacier National Park was in full wildfire suppression mode, and had been since mid-July. Park fire crews managed to keep 18 wildfires at three acres or less.

That was about to change.

“Around 11 p.m., the rappellers called the duty officer to report increased fire behavior,” a newly released Facilitated Learning Analysis notes. “Due to their concerns of fire overrunning their location, they wanted to hike out.''

But because it was dark, steep and home to grizzly bears, they stayed put.

Eighty large fires were burning throughout the nation, with five new ones igniting on Aug. 10 alone. Fire suppression resources were “depleted,” with 15,294 people fighting fires across the western United States.

Hot and Dry

The Sprague fire started in an area that hadn’t burned since the 1700s. Only one-third of an inch of rain had fallen in Glacier in July and August, a fraction of the typical 3 inches. Temperatures were in the high 80s, in an area where they’re more inclined to hover 10 degrees lower.

The rappellers hiked out Aug. 12. The landing spot they cleared couldn’t be used because the slope was too steep. Instead, a six-person team hiked four hours to the fire.

The head of the group thought that with cooperative weather and hand lines dug in the dirt, they could stop the Sprague fire from spreading. He asked the fire managers for two hotshot crews. But with fires elsewhere in the region threatening lives and structures, the hotshots were never called.

The fire covered 21 acres.

That same day, at the historic Sperry Chalet, the 42 guests hiked out after being strongly encouraged to leave. Three headed to West Glacier; 39 hiked out 13 miles via Gunsight Pass Trail. The concessionaire later reflected that “to take that many people and move them out safely was one of Sperry’s golden hours.”

The stone and timber Swiss-style Sperry Chalet dormitory and dining hall were constructed in 1913. The 32-by-90-foot dormitory was the largest and architecturally imposing structure with a large gable roof that sported two dormers on the east side and three on the west. Some of the dormers were over small, log-framed balconies.

Values at Risk

At 2 a.m. Aug. 13, the Sprague fire picked up and forced the six firefighters to move into their safety zone. By 10 a.m. Aug. 14, it became apparent that the limited resources weren’t going to put the fire out. The Sprague fire was at 60 acres, and the crew hiked out.

The Incident Commander took a reconnaissance flight and identified three “values at risk” in order of priority. The Sperry Chalet topped the list, followed by the Mount Brown Fire Lookout and Crystal Ford Bridge.

At this point, the Sprague fire was doubling in size every night.

On Aug. 16, six park fire employees were flown to the lookout to do a “prep and leave.” With no water for a sprinkler system and no safety zone for firefighters, they did everything they could to prepare the structure, including wrapping the entire lookout in fire-resistant materials, and left.

Meanwhile, four local park firefighters — a crew boss, an experienced Type 1 and two less experienced Type 2 firefighters — were flown to the Sperry Chalet complex to implement the 2011 structure protection plan, which consisted of several thousand feet of hose, sprinklers, pumps and nozzles. They were joined by a park maintenance employee.

The five-person crew immediately experienced problems with the untested plan. They didn’t have enough water to operate the sprinkler and hoses continuously. They also didn’t have enough water pressure to spray the roof.

Instead, they established “trigger points” to determine when to turn on the pumps. They also ordered a portable water tank and additional hoses and fittings.

“Fire prediction models forecast high potential for Sprague Fire to reach Sperry Chalet complex” within days, the park’s report stated.

The nine concession employees closed the Sperry Chalet complex for the season, which included stashing a dozen propane tanks under the dining hall, and hiked out. The structure’s base later would be wrapped in fire-resistant materials, and the tanks were forgotten.

The fire was at 519 acres.

Sprinklers, Wrappers and Miscommunication

By the afternoon of Aug. 18, the Sprague fire was directly across a drainage from the Sperry Chalet. The operations chief flew the drainage and spoke with the crew boss at the chalet. They both felt “relatively comfortable” having tested the sprinkler system, but recognized the possibility of an “ember shower” reaching the complex.

The crew boss slept on the porch of the dining hall that night, and the fire remained active. “It was a restless night to say the least … just keeping an eye out,” he told investigators.

The fire was at 824 acres.

The next day, a safety officer trainee, two U.S. Forest Service firefighters and a park maintenance employee were flown to the chalet to switch out with the park firefighters to free them up for initial attacks. The new crew didn’t like what they saw.

They ordered another 6,000-gallon water tank, called a “pumpkin” due to its bright orange color, to be the primary water source for the structures. The park maintenance man gained approval from his boss to get onto the buildings’ roof to install sprinklers, since he was the only person trained in “fall safety protection.”

The roof had a “6-12 pitch,” meaning the roof rises 6 inches for every 12 inches toward the peak, which is an angle of 26.5 degrees. The report notes that due to the height of the building and pitch of the roof, the installation of sprinklers was considered dangerous, and even the maintenance man was nervous about working on the roof.

“I wouldn’t have felt comfortable getting up there, especially on a two-story structure,” the safety officer trainee told investigators. “I think we did everything we could with the limitations we had.”

From Aug. 20-23, the Sprague fire’s activity increased, but it didn’t move toward the Sperry complex. Helicopters dropped buckets of water into the drainage below Sperry, a boulder-strewn landscape with few flammable materials, but also “a chimney canyon, which is one of the most dangerous locations from downhill fires.”

The Sperry firefighters talked about wrapping the dormers of the dormitory, but they were deemed inaccessible. The dormitory was two stories high, and irregularly shaped. They feared that wrapping some of those areas could create pockets where embers could become trapped and negate the effort of wrapping.

Instead, they tested and tweaked the sprinkler system, and worked on cutting and moving away dead standing trees and fuels on the ground.

“Due to a communication misunderstanding, the firefighters at Sperry were under the belief that specific direction had been given to not cut any green trees,” the report states.

That misunderstanding would later complicate the ability to protect the structures and put helicopter pilots and firefighters at risk, with the report noting that “Further reduction of fuels adjacent to the structures would have created a more manageable situation and safer situation for the firefighters.”

Ember Storm

By Aug. 27, the Sprague fire was moving closer to one of the Sperry Chalet crews’ trigger points.

Based on the gradually increasing fire behavior and movement, the firefighters at Sperry knew it was a matter of time before the fire reached them,” the report states. “With the growing anticipation of the fire, they ran the pumps every day and thoroughly tested the entire system. They talked every morning that ‘this could be the day.’”

On Aug. 30, the safety officer was replaced by a division supervisor, whose work was about to become more challenging. The next morning during the daily briefing, he learned of a predicted red flag warning, with breezy west/southwest winds and the possibility of embers showering the structures.

The daily Incident Action Plan called for the same task as the previous week for the Sperry crew – to monitor the fire’s progression along the west flank toward Lake McDonald and near Lincoln Creek to the south, and use aviation “as necessary.”

The supervisor told investigators he expected the Sperry Chalet would be “impacted by fire,” the report states. They ran the sprinklers for 30 to 40 minutes that morning, shutting them down to allow the portable tank and pumpkin to refill. They did it again at 12:30 p.m.

By 2:30 p.m. Aug. 31, the complex was blanketed with heavy smoke as the winds increased, sending embers and creating spot fires that firefighters raced to extinguish. As smoke alarms blared from the dormitory, at 3 p.m. the division supervisor ordered a helicopter to help find spot fires and drop water in the drainage below the facilities.

Half an hour later, as conditions became even smokier, the operations chief based at the Incident Command Center near Lake McDonald ordered “a bucket ship ASAP to Sperry Chalet.” Shortly afterward, he ordered additional “buckets,” but the pilots were having a difficult time.

“The smoke was thick,” one pilot told investigators. “It was hard to pick out specific targets. Once in a while the smoke would clear and I could make a good drop.”

Retardant drops were considered, but the terrain alone was expected to make those “extremely difficult and dangerous to the pilots,” the report notes. “The smoke that blanketed Sperry, causing very low visibility coupled with 20-30 miles per hour winds, made retardant drops unrealistic and unsafe.”

On the ground, spot fires were igniting on all sides of the structures in the Sperry complex and the firefighters bolted from one to another to extinguish them.

At 3:30 p.m., the division supervisor notice smoke coming from the corner of the dining hall. He didn’t know about the 12 full propane tanks underneath the structure because he had just flown in the previous day and fire-resistant material around the base of the hall obscured them.

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The lead firefighter raced to the hall and within a minute, he radioed his supervisor to “bring a Pulaski,” which is a firefighting tool with a combined ax and adze head. They hacked into the eaves, where they found 6-to-12-inch flames, and a “rat’s nest size pile” of debris fell out. They used the hose to extinguish the fire.

“Had crews not been able to suppress the fire in the dining hall, then a major life safety hazard existed,” the report notes. “Consider if the dining hall had become fully involved and the propane tank(s)'' had exploded.

During the next two hours, the four firefighters and maintenance man put out multiple small fires as helicopters worked the drainage and around Sperry. They regrouped at 5:30 p.m. near the Sperry Chalet dormitory as the fire behavior seemed to have slowed down.

“It felt like we may have been successful and the worst was over,” one of the firefighters told the investigators, adding that they never felt like they needed more people.

The Facilitated Learning Analysis found the confidence was misplaced. “The risk to Sperry Chalet was underestimated,” the report stated. “There was so much lead time that confidence was high in regards to being able to defend it.”

Chalet Burns

Just before 6 p.m., the firefighter spraying water on the dormitory radioed to report smoke coming from under an eave on the second-story dormer. The sprinklers were running on the roof but the report is unclear about whether water from the hose was able to reach the dormer.

The division supervisor and the maintenance man ran to the building, removed a shutter and broke a window in the door to get inside, despite not having air tanks and personal protection gear usually used by urban firefighters. They’re also not trained to engage a fire inside a structure.

“Terrible brown smoke” filled the building from floor to ceiling, the supervisor told investigators. “It was so thick you could barely see your hand in front of you.”

The two men and the firefighter with the hose stepped inside the south lobby, but realized they couldn’t go any farther. The supervisor and maintenance man sprinted to the lobby’s north door, but once again found smoke from floor to ceiling, and were turned back.

Five minutes later, flames were shooting out of the dormer’s window. Fueled by the heavy timbers, wooden walls and ceilings, it took minutes for the flames to reach the roof shingles. The supervisor called for more helicopter bucket drops, but that was to prevent burning materials from blowing off and igniting more spot fires around the other structures.

“It was a gut punch,” one firefighter reported. “For the past two hours we had worked hard and felt like we were going to be successful.”

By 8:20, the sun had set and the helicopters returned to the helibase. At Sperry, the firefighters worked until midnight putting out spot fires and protecting the other buildings. The supervisor and two Type 2 firefighters caught three hours of sleep while the Type 1 firefighter and maintenance man continued to patrol and protect the structures.

At 3 a.m., the two teams switched. By then, “the majority of the Sperry dormitory had been consumed,” the report states.

The Sprague fire was at 4,646 acres.

The Aftermath

The total number of fires that ignited in the Sperry Chalet complex that afternoon isn’t known. But one of the firefighters calls it “the most intense direct firefighting experience.”

As the sun came up on Sept. 1, seven additional firefighters were sent to the Sperry complex to “aggressively” mop up all hot spots, and clear trees and vegetation that could threaten the remaining five buildings, which included the dining hall, a maintenance building, a trail crew cabin, a restroom and a chlorination shed.

The following day, Brian Johnson, the acting chief of the National Park Service’s Structural Fire Branch, called Jimmy G. Stewart, a regional structural fire manager in Georgia, asking if he would conduct an investigation.

Stewart traveled to Whitefish on Sept. 17, and for five days met with other members of the Facilitated Learning Analysis team and participated in interviews with park personnel, incident managers, firefighters, maintenance personnel and concessionaires. On Sept. 23, he did a site visit to the Sperry complex, taking photographs, evaluating the fire ignition and looking at the fire spread in the dormitory and dining hall.

Stewart considered nine possible scenarios for how the fire started, including carelessness with candles or cooking stoves; spontaneous combustion of oily rags or chemicals; lightning strikes; or arson. He concluded that it was ember-caused in or near the exposed timbers on the west second-floor wall of the dormitory, near Room 15.

“The peaked ceiling in Room #15 provided a large area for smoke to collect before smoke levels were seen issuing from the dormer eave,” Stewart wrote. “This peaked ceiling also provided a combustible fuel geometry and orientation that supported rapid fire growth within the compartment.”

The Facilitated Learning Analysis included 10 observations, or “lessons learned” from the loss of the Sperry Chalet, and will incorporate those into future wildfire and structure protection incidents. But the authors note that “The story of the events of August 31 should also illuminate the many successes” that include protecting all of the buildings from direct flames, ensuring none of the roofs caught fire from embers and limiting the spot fires within the complex.

In addition, no one was injured or felt unsafe.

“The burning of the historic Sperry dormitory triggers a sense of regret and loss, leading to speculation about what more could have been done, should have been done,” the report concludes. “The firefighters, the ICs (incident commanders) and park leadership were well aware of the historical significance of the chalet, the visitor experience it provided, and the profound uniqueness of the buildings. They, like many others who appreciated the uniqueness of the Sperry Chalet dormitory, will continue to re-examine the actions taken and on what more could have been done.”

Reconstruction of the Sperry Chalet, in the same location with some safety upgrades, is expected to begin in July.

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