(CN) — Alex and Pam McCollister stood on the edge of the lake in Glacier National Park Monday afternoon not knowing.
At the other end of Lake McDonald their family cabin inside the park, which has been in Alex McCollister’s family since 1913, may have been lost in a wildfire that raged through the west side of Glacier on Sunday.
The fire forced the evacuation of a handful of historic cabins and homes that have been in the park since the early 1900s. Campgrounds and the historic Lake McDonald Lodge resort was evacuated also. The McCollisters and dozens of other residents had little time to pack any valuables.
“We took our clothes and our cars,” Pam McCollister said.
The McCollisters, from Cleburne, Texas, have been in this position before. They watched from this same shoreline in 2003 when the Apgar Fire raged through Glacier National Park. The area where that fire burned had begun to regrow after that blaze, but Sunday’s conflagration tore through the old fire and down to the water line.
“They sure tried hard,” Alex McCollister said as two Super Scooper air tankers and a K-Max helicopter roared overhead to draw water out of Lake McDonald to put on the fire. “You can’t fault those guys.”
But several residents in a community forum Monday afternoon — the first town hall meeting after the fire erupted — were quick to find fault with the National Park Service’s response to the fire, as the residents in the forum sat there waiting for the word on whether they, too, had lost their historic homes.
The McCollisters, though, were measured in their response.
“This time it was just nature showing her upper hand,” Alex McCollister said.
At about 2,500 acres. the Howe Ridge Fire is not large by comparison to other fires around the nation, but with several miles of national park between the fire and a highway on the southern border of the park, the fire has the chance to run, with high winds and no rain in the forecast for a week. The fire forced the closure of Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road, a historic alpine highway that’s been open for only about five weeks.
A Type I fire-management team, deployed during fires of national significance, will take command of the fire on Wednesday, park officials said.
The McCollisters said in 2003 the summer residents along Lake McDonald had time to put out water sprinklers to protect their cabins as the fire approached. “That time we had help … and we had hope,” Pam McCollister said.
Sunday was different, though.
The couple, who had honeymooned at the cabin 40 years ago, said they saw the lightning strike Saturday afternoon and called emergency, before high winds on Sunday whipped the tiny blaze out of control. The lightning storm on Saturday sparked dozens of fires around Montana, which has not seen measurable precipitation in weeks.
The fire took a fast run, throwing embers up to a half mile in front of it and sparking new blazes, park officials said.
A couple from Arkansas strolled the shore of Lake McDonald Monday afternoon, having been denied their chance to drive the fabled Going-to-the-Sun Road, which traverses the Continental Divide.
“We don’t have fires like this in Arkansas,” Jessica Jarman said. “But we’ll come up again some time.”
As they spoke, within minutes high winds shot a column of smoke from the fire some 30,000 feet in the air.
Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow told the group of about 75 homeowners at the community meeting that the park service did all it could do, but weather did not cooperate in the fire’s early hours Sunday.
“This is hard for all of us,” he said, preparing the crowd for having to perhaps tell them their family residences were lost. “We’re all trying to come to grips with this.”
Several of the historic in-holding residences in Glacier National Park date back to Montana’s frontier days when wealthy out-of-staters owned stately cabins along the shore of the lake. It was unknown Monday afternoon whether any of them survived.