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Sperry chalet

Construction workers assess the damage at the Sperry Chalet dormitory, which burned during an ember storm Aug. 31, 2017. 

This letter is written in response to the Review of Fire at Glacier National Park’s Sperry Chalet released by the National Park Service on June 21. The report was reactive in nature and stressed both what could have been done better and what was done well.

It has repeatedly been shown that proactive decisions and actions, coupled with reactive ones, will usually combine to increase the probability of success and to decrease the chance of failure.

Agencies typically call in outside help when a fire situation exceed their ability to manage it. Agency managers, faced with busy schedules and other responsibilities, often take the approach of leaving it to the professionals to figure out the best solution. Without adequate proactive planning, this “hands off” approach invites problems. I believe there were multiple proactive actions that could have and should have been taken that had the potential to change the outcome at Sperry Chalet.

As an example, firefighters should not have to ask what vegetation they can or can’t cut! This question should have been asked, answered and resolved prior to the start of the fire. Waiting for firefighters to arrive before making such decisions is inappropriately shifting agency responsibility to the firefighters who already are charged with a daunting task to be accomplished with limited time and resources. This situation decreased the firefighters' probability of success.

Additional proactive involvement should include such questions as:

1. Had the vulnerability of the chalet complex to various types of fires (embers, crown, surface) been assessed? This would have allowed appropriate strategies and tactics to be developed in advance.

2. Were recommendations made on identified risks to structures? Were subject matter experts (wildland fire, cultural and natural resources, structural fire, maintenance, etc.) collectively involved in determining the alternative that best balanced such factors as risk reduction, cost and historical authenticity.

3. Was treatment of the nearby vegetation pretreatment warranted?

4. Were resource advisors identified that would liaison with park and fire managers about developing concerns and priorities?

5. Based on these and other assessments were park staffing, equipment and training requirements adequate?

6. Were park managers involved in the assessment process and did they actively support the resulting recommendations?

Best efforts and best intentions of those involved in the suppression of this fire should not be used to define the success or failure of managing an incident.

The bottom line is Sperry burned and must be rebuilt. The underlying question is, could this outcome have been avoided? I believe given additional proactive actions there was an excellent chance all the structures at Sperry could have been saved.

These comments are submitted with respect and concern for all involved in this incident.

Dan O’Brien spent his career working in wildland fire management for the National Park Service and spent over 30 years working at Glacier National Park.

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