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Know the West

The Sprague Fire, as it happened

Seasonal Glacier National Park ranger Daniel Lombardi tracked the path of fire’s destruction in photos.


On August 10, 2017 a lightning strike ignited the understory of some forest in Glacier National Park. By October it had covered 16,982 acres and burned the historic Sperry Chalet, a hotel building in the park that was built from local rock in 1913. Daniel Lombardi, who was a ranger at the park for the summer, witnessed the smoldering fire grow and glow over the course of a month. As he watched the fire from afar, he took time lapses and pictures to document its spread. He captured the hazy skies, the flames, and the people who observed it from the shores of Lake McDonald. Here he reflects on the necessity of wildfires, even as they clash with human communities.

Daniel Lombardi

Aug. 10: The Sprague Fire Ignites
Tonight I stood out in Glacier National Park’s first big storm of the summer, enjoying the wildness of it. In addition to rain, the storm dropped 150 lightning strikes across Park. One of them ignited the Sprague Fire.

Daniel Lombardi

Aug. 19: 519 acres burned
I hiked to the Huckleberry fire lookout today, 15 miles from where the Sprague Fire burned. The lookout showed me how he used a fire finder to evaluate the growth of the fire. The Sprague had grown several dozen acres a day, over the past week. He said he’d been watching large trees topple down, spreading flames as they rolled.

A few decades ago this would’ve been a big fire but now it simply exemplifies the increasingly frequent megafires. Thousands of tourists drive by the fire everyday without notice. They come to see wild animals like moose and grizzlies but they miss the wildest thing of all.

Daniel Lombardi

Aug. 23: 1,364 acres burned
My little sister Sarah is sick from the smoke. She’s in constant fits of coughing. I can’t point to a spot on the map that she can realistically go to get away from the smoke. So I took her swimming. She had fun but said the water didn’t help her lungs. Fire brings wildness into our towns and into our homes and there’s nothing we can do about it. And that captures the essence: Wild is something that we can’t control.

Aug 25: 1,537 acres burned. The Sprague transitions to a type II fire.
Scientists say that the historic practice of suppressing wildfires has been nothing less than a disaster. They say fire creates biodiversity. They say we should let 10 to 15 million acres burn every year. Everyday the fire burns closer to my house.

Daniel Lombardi

Aug. 31: 2,091 acres burned
I was reading and taking notes on wildfire ecology when I received the news that the Sperry Chalet had burned down. Sperry Chalet was opened in 1914 on a perch high in heart of Glacier National Park. It operated for over a hundred years as a jewel of living history in the crown of the continent.

Everyone loved the chalet, myself included, so we all went to the lake to watch it burn. I sat with group of park employees at the end of the boat dock. One ranger reminded the group that fire is natural. Another insisted that it is evil. Another said we should reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to make fire less likely.

I didn’t say anything. But I thought the Chalet made the forest feel less wild — a bed and a hot meal are antithetical to the backcountry of Glacier National Park. After one hundred years of offering civilization in a wild place, this is a reminder that wildness is always there.

Daniel Lombardi

Sept. 4: 9,403 acres burned. Evacuations issued for some areas.
The nature of the fire has changed. Tourists ask about it constantly and locals feel more fear than curiosity. The air is hazardous. The community is holding safety meetings with national park officials. The fire has closed the Going-to-the-Sun Road. There is an evacuation warning for my neighborhood.

I have long preached about the healing power of wildness. But now a wild thing is making my family sick and threatening my home. The value of wildness, surely still there, is hard to quantify. The costs, on the other hand, are clearly calculated in dollars and human life.

Sept. 7: 13,343 acres burned
The smoke is so thick I can’t see across the street. I want to leave this place for somewhere civilized. The animals seem to feel the same. Yesterday I saw a grizzly bear lying in a creek. There are bugs everywhere. Large western conifer seed bugs crawl lethargically through the crack under the door. Hemlock looper moths swarm streetlights that remain lit well into the day for the dimming effect of the smoke.  

Daniel Lombardi

Sept. 16: 15,995 acres burned
A dusting of snow has finally improved conditions but smoke still hangs around the house. I drove up the canyon to feel something wild besides smoke. Is it possible to separate the wildness that heals us from the wildness that kills us?

I hiked away from the highway. From a high point I could see hundreds of miles of wild and the developed world mixing around me. The sound of a train drifted up to me. A cold wind blew up from a trail-less canyon. The wildest thing in my vision was the smoldering fire. It was naturally caused and burned through old growth forests and there was nothing humans could do. Now storms of snow are coming.

Daniel Lombardi

 Note: Videos courtesy of Daniel Lombardi.