GLACIER NATIONAL PARK — McDonald Creek has shrunk to a few low trickles running between dry gravel berms. Looking west from the Going-to-the-Sun Road, it was possible to see the creek, the trees fronting its far shore and, on the slope above them, smoke plumes from the Howe Ridge fire.
At a community meeting on Saturday, fire officials identified Going-to-the-Sun Road as one of the Glacier features they’re focused on protecting. Tuesday morning, Missoula smokejumper Shane Ralston estimated that the fire’s edge is “at least a half mile away [from the road] at the closest.”
Speaking with reporters during a guided visit to the closed area, Ralston said that the famous highway likely will fare well.
“I'm feeling real confident that we can hold our own right now,” he said.
Across the creek droned a gas-powered pump submerged in the lake, part of what Ralston estimates is a 10-mile system of hoses, pumps and sprinklers now installed along and near McDonald Creek.
Ralston, a division group supervisor trainee, has helped oversee this effort. “We’ve got a big trunk line with multiple pumps on each zone, and then we have freestanding sprinkler heads … every 50 feet. In theory, we’re getting coverage on every turn of every sprinkler.
“It’s been a huge undertaking,” he added, “ … and everybody’s been working really hard.”
The 80 to 100 fire personnel in this part of Glacier haven’t just been working with water. The nearly level row of smoke plumes marking the northeast edge of the Howe Ridge fire is no accident.
“It was a larger horseshoe [earlier], and you see how it's straight right now, really calm and walking down,” Ralston said. “Most of that's natural fire, and a little bit’s the PSD.”
He meant a plastic sphere dispenser — a helicopter-mounted device that drops incendiary balls near a fire, creating a burning space that can be more easily managed. Monday’s clear conditions allowed firefighters to use the PSD.
“We strategically dropped those balls in certain places, and they'll just start a fire and meet with the main fire, create a nice straight line, and then that line will hopefully do a slow walk down to the flat where it's a lot easier to manage and it's not going to race up the hill and trash a bunch of nice timber,” he said.
Through these and other measures, Ralston explained, “I’m trying to get it away from the back of the structures, herding it parallel to the Going-to-the-Sun Road and the river itself.
“It's taken us about three days for me to really feel good that we can take a stand, and I think we're two or three days ahead of it,” he said.
The fire’s most recent estimated size was about 11,000 acres, and Ralston said that Monday morning’s rain shower had “minimal effect’ on conditions. The National Weather Service projects temperatures north of Lake McDonald to range between the low 50s and low 80s Wednesday and Thursday, with southwest winds blowing between 5 and 13 miles per hour.
“I'm not going to say it's not” going to reach the road, Ralston said, “but it's not showing me that it's going to in the conditions we've had lately.”
At Saturday’s community meeting, Rocky Gilbert, operations chief for the fire’s Type 1 Incident Management Team, predicted that “if we have fire along there, what we’d be dealing with is trees and rocks falling along that road for years to come because of the destabilization.”
But in the worst-case scenario of fire reaching the road, Ralston’s outlook is less dire.
“This is a pretty nice road with good maintenance on it, and there's light flashy fuels on the edges, a lot of it's green and doesn't look like it's available to burn. I've been on a lot of fires with a lot of nice paved roads like this and … it's real unlikely that it'll do any damage to this road.
“There may be some snags that'll fall, and hit the road and crack the edges, but as far as melting the road, that's unrealistic. I'm not an engineer, but I think the road itself is in really good shape and will continue to be.”
The fire has burned 13 homes and 14 other structures north of Lake McDonald and has cost $1.8 million to fight.