Note: This account was written using interviews with some of the people who experienced the fire and with written records of this event from the Glacier National Park Archives and Great Northern Railway correspondence and reports courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.
This account is meant to be a retelling of this story from the standpoint of the people who were a part of that natural event.
To the first visitors of the upper reaches of what is today known as the McDonald Valley, Heaven's Peak must have been an awesome, mysterious sight. It certainly was a surprise to the members of Lieutenant George Ahern's 1890 expedition.
Approaching from the west, the jagged, razor-edged wall, now known as the Garden Wall was the dominant feature. At the point where they must have thought that they would be stopped by the Divide, the landscape suddenly opened up, revealing a much different mountain. Where they had been surrounded by peaks with narrow bases and steep cliffs leading up to narrow razor-ridges, they suddenly found themselves looking back across an open (though heavily vegetated) valley at a peak with a broad base, crowned in snow. It was not until they had moved well past Heaven's Peak that they became aware of its broad, snow-capped form. It was so different from what they had been seeing.
These explorers were certainly not the first people to see the mountain, but one of the members of that expedition, a prospector named Dutch Louie Meyer is credited with giving the mountain its name. This same peak was called "Red Bird" by the Kootenai, and "Where God Lives" by the Blackfeet. The members of this expedition, shared a common feeling that there was a mystical, mysterious quality to the area.
To all of those earlier explorers, this was a place of magical beauty. One must be cautious in such situations. Where there is great beauty, there is also the potential for malevolence and desolation. The deeper the magic, the greater the potential for terror.
The Summer Of 1936
The summer of 1936 held more than its share of beauty and magic. Summer came early. There was plenty of sun and warmth. Plants burst aggressively through lingering high country snowbanks, reaching out toward the sun's warmth. Meadows burst with new color and bustled with life. Animals scurried about knowing that the time of plenty is short and the winter long and severe. Park visitors enjoyed endless sunny days filled with activity and color. For park workers, it was a productive time. Road and trail work projects were well ahead of schedule.
The rain, however, typically brought with the moist west winds of June, did not come. It was diverted by a high pressure weather system which brought sun instead of rain. This weather system settled in early and refused to move.
As July moved into August, the high country began to show the effects of the rain shortage. Without sustenance, the vibrant colors began to fade prematurely. The humorous chuckle of mountain streams dwindled, their laughter replaced by the hollow moan of a dry south wind. A demon called drought quietly dominated the land.
Animals became increasingly nervous as their food supplies dried up. Hikers and horseback riders were disappointed by the fading of the mountain colors, and choked by clouds of dust rising from the trails. They sensed the tension, were vaguely aware of the work of some angry power repressing the land.
Never far behind the work of such demon spirits is a more fierce adversary - - fire!
Both ally and enemy, fire is an essential force in our lives. We depend on its power, but cannot always control its force. Fire, like the mountain, is a sacred symbol, rich in meaning and emotion. When it touches our lives, it leaves a mark.
The Heaven's Peak Area
The drama begins along the crest of the Glacier Wall, a shoulder of Heaven's Peak. The wall extends to the east, overshadowing McDonald Creek and Going-to-the-Sun Highway. Even further to the east is the Garden Wall, a dramatic section of the Continental Divide which separates the McDonald Valley drainage from the Swiftcurrent Valley.
In comparison with the 6,000 foot rise of both Heaven's Peak and the Garden Wall, the Glacier Wall to McDonald Creek is a comparatively modest 2,500 feet above McDonald Creek.
A mass of shrubs, bushes and a variety of herbaceous plants cover most of the wall's narrow ledges. North of the Glacier Wall's crest is a small plateau which drops at a comparatively gentle slope down to McDonald and Mineral Creeks.
The ground cover along the top is a timberline ecosystem. This plant community consists of a combination of small groves of Engelmann spruce along windswept ridges, and dwarf subalpine fir nestled in protected hollows. These communities are separated by grassy, flower-studded subalpine meadows.
As the wall drops off gently to the north, the foliage thickens, subsisting on a thin layer of soil. Such areas are quick to dry out.
At the valley bottom, a spruce/fir climax forest dominates. The overstory of protected Engelmann Spruce rises as high as 100 feet while subalpine fir reach as high as 70 feet. The understory is a combination of young fir and spruce and an assortment of shrubs and bushes. The ground cover in 1936 is not particularly thick, but complicated by a mat of fallen trees.
On the east side of McDonald Creek, the terrain rises steadily up toward the Granite Park area and the Continental Divide. The progression of vegetation found on this side of the valley is almost identical to that of the east side. The spruce/fir climax thins into the meadows of Granite Park's subalpine meadows, and finally ends in the cliffs and passes of the Continental Divide. The high points along the Divide are Swiftcurrent Peak and Grinnell Mountain. The lowest point is Swiftcurrent Pass. The only buildings in the area are the Granite Park Chalets, located at the base of Swiftcurrent Pass.
The Origins Of The Fire: Fuel
In a normal year, this portion of the McDonald Valley enjoys ample rainfall and cool temperatures. The rainfall encourages lush, rapid growth, and cool temperatures resist the decomposition process. The result is a growth rate which is faster than the environment's ability to decompose dead plant material.
Also, there is no mention of any forest fire activity in this area in existing documents or Native American stories. It is possible that fuel from dead plant life has been accumulating for several centuries.
The result is a growth of trees and underbrush, as high as the winter temperatures, snowdrifts and winds allow. This is an area just waiting for the right conditions to explode into flame.
Properly cured fuel, the first of three essential elements which make up what is called the Fire Triangle, is available in an unnaturally high quantity. The other necessary elements, oxygen and heat are only as far away as a dry summer wind and a well placed bolt of lightning.
There are two basic forms of lightning. The most common is the "cold stroke." This form is characterized by high voltage, but a shorter duration.
The type of lightning which supplies the necessary heat to ignite a fire is called the "hot stroke." This form is characterized by lower voltage, but a longer duration. The hot stroke occurs about one time in five. Also, only about one stroke in five travels from cloud to ground. Thus, one stroke in every 25 has the electrical characteristics necessary to start a fire. The odds of such a stroke hitting fuel capable of sustaining a fire are even smaller.
On Tuesday, August 18, however, all of these qualities do come together.
A FIRE HISTORY
Tuesday, August 18:
3:40 pm: Two lightning strikes are reported just to the north of the Glacier Wall's crest. This area is a blind spot for fire controllers, not visible from Going-to-the-Sun Road, Granite Park Chalets, or the closest lookout tower on Mount Brown. Since no smoke is spotted, no further action is taken, except to watch and wait.
Friday, August 21:
12:55 pm: The wait ends. From Road Camp #9 along Going-to-the-Sun Road, T. E. Whitcraft reports a plume of smoke rising from the far side of the Glacier Wall. He estimates the size of the fire to be one acre.
12:58 pm: The fire is reported to Belton Dispatcher Hugh Payton.
1:00 pm: McDonald Ranger Station Fire Guard Stan Kinnich is informed.
1:03 pm: Fireguard Kinnich leaves the Ranger Station alone, driving the 12 miles to the base of the Glacier Wall. There he takes charge of 50 men, gathered from road crews. They begin an arduous ascent of the 2,500 foot wall through heavy brush and down timber.
4:30 pm: Three hours and 27 minutes after the initial report, the fire fighters arrive at the scene of the fire.
The fire is already "crowning" (burning through the treetops), and spreading rapidly. The weather report at Mount Brown Lookout reports a fresh wind out of the southwest. The lowest humidity recorded during the day is 74% at 6:00 pm. A humidity reading this high is good news for the firefighters.
At the time of arrival, Fireguard Kinnich estimates that the fire covers about five acres. Several spot fires are also located in inaccessible areas along the cliffs of the Glacier Wall. The perimeter of the fire is paced off at 2,000 feet.
On top of the Glacier Wall, the firefighters find no source of water to help with the fight. It is judged that any attempt to carry water through the underbrush and ground cover will be a poor use of limited manpower. Therefore, the only tools employed by the firefighters are shovels and "Pulaskis" (a special firefighting tool with an ax blade and a digging blade like a hoe).
A Worst Case Scenario
Since the fire is located at the top of the ridge, it must move downhill. This is also to the advantage of the firefighters. Fire moves more slowly downhill.
The fire, however, is also fraught with dangers. If the west wind rises, "firebrands" (wind blown sparks) could blow across the valley onto the eastern slopes below Granite Park Chalets. Once on an uphill slope, the fire would move much more quickly. Wind created by the intense heat of the fire, combined with an already strong west wind, could create a "firestorm" (a fire burning so hot that it creates its own weather system to feed it the enormous amounts of oxygen it needs to flourish).
An additional danger lies in the fact that wind increases in speed whenever it crosses the Continental Divide. High winds could potentially toss firebrands over to the Park's east side. With such a wind, if firebrands were to ignite a blaze on the east side, an entire valley could be consumed within a very short time.
A large crowning fire, fanned by high wind, is capable of releasing the energy equivalent of a Hiroshima-type atomic bomb every five to fifteen minutes.
8:30 pm: Sixteen reinforcements arrive.
9:00 pm: Another 77 firefighters arrive.
The fire continues to grow.
Saturday, August 22:
3:00 am: The night air finally cools the fire down enough for the firefighters to fight it effectively.
12:00 pm: Approximately 500 men are working at the scene of the fire.
By Saturday night, the fire is judged to be under control, except for several spot fires located along the steep slope of the Glacier Wall.
Late Saturday night, a dry thunder storm moves through the region. Ten more fires are reported inside the Park, mostly in the North Fork area. Several additional fires are sighted in National Forest areas to the west of the Park. Two of these fires, one on Winona Ridge, and the other near Coal Creek, are spreading rapidly toward the Park boundary.
Sunday, August 23:
11:00 am: The Winona Ridge Fire is within two miles of the Park. One hundred and twenty-five men are reassigned from the Glacier Wall blaze to the North Fork area. An additional 94 men are reassigned to fight several smaller fires in Glacier.
During the afternoon, a favorable switch in the wind's direction occurs. The Winona Ridge Fire begins to subside. The Coal Creek Fire, however, continues its advance.
10:12 pm: A telegram from Superintendent Scoyen to the Director of the National Park Service (NPS) is sent. It reads:
"WE HAVE CONTROLLED TWELVE FIRES STARTED IN PARK LAST TWENTY FOUR HOURS BY LIGHTNING AND A TOTAL OF TWENTY THREE SINCE FRIDAY STOP MCDONALD CREEK (Heaven's Peak Fire) UNDER CONTROL WITH PRACTICALLY NO SCENIC OR OTHER DAMAGE STOP TWO VERY LARGE FIRES BURNING ON FLATHEAD FOREST OPPOSITE MOUTH OF LOGGING AND QUARTZ CREEK GIVING US GREAT CONCERN AND WE HAVE SENT IN TWO HUNDRED MEN TO SUPPLEMENT THE ONE THOUSAND THE FOREST SERVICE HAVE ON THE LINE STOP ONE OF THESE WITHIN TWO MILES OF PARK BOUNDARY AND FIRE HAZARD EXTREME NO RAIN FIVE WEEKS STOP WE LOOK FORWARD TO WINTER WITH EAGER ANTICIPATION
Monday, August 24:
Rain falls over most of the region during the early morning hours. Also, a force of 1,200 firefighters is brought in by the Forest Service. Both fires outside the Park boundaries are quickly brought under control.
Meanwhile, the Heaven's Peak Fire is extinguished except for those tenacious spot fires smoldering along the cliffs. After a meeting between Glacier National Park Superintendent E. T. Scoyen and the NPS Regional Forester, L. F. Cook, it is decided that it is very unlikely that firefighters will be able to effectively fight the fires on the cliff face of the Glacier Wall.
A crew of 35 is assigned to fight these remnant fires. They dig fire line where they can, removing excess fuel from near the fires, and settle down to watch until the fires burn themselves out.
Saturday, August 29:
During the afternoon, Superintendent Scoyen examines the site of the fire with binoculars from Going-to-the-Sun Road. He reports that the fire has "not changed in any way during the previous week and (he does) not see how the fire could possibly escape from the area in which it (is) confined."
Sunday, August 30:
A hot, dry wind rises from the west. Such late August winds occasionally occur during drought years.
Fueled by this wind, a fire, smoldering unseen near the top of the Wall, is fanned into flame. This flame ignites underbrush in a protected gully. Acting like a fuse, the gully carries the flame up to the top of the ridge. The fire quickly crowns out into the treetops along the ridgetop and pushes sparks beyond the fire lines constructed a week earlier. These sparks ignite spot fires which in turn grow to combine with the main body of flame.
The Heaven's Peak Fire is once again blazing out of control!
As the fire works its way down the slope toward McDonald Creek, the wind carries fire- brands from the Glacier Wall to the slope rising up toward the Granite Park area and Swiftcurrent Pass. Late in the afternoon, a second major blaze is sighted above the Loop of Going-to-the-Sun Road a full mile and a half from the original fire. Kindled by the strong wind, this blaze crowns out within minutes.
Fire moves more quickly uphill. The heat rising from the flames heats and dries the forest in front of it, preparing it for the approaching wall of flame. This new blaze almost immediately starts a run toward the Granite Park Chalets.
To complicate matters, the Mount Brown Lookout reports another fire in the Ahern Pass area about three miles to the north.
The Granite Park Chalet staff, after weighing their options, decide to stay. The Chalet, situated on a granite shelf, is surrounded by prairie and occasional patches of scrub timber. Any fire reaching them will move quickly, and not burn very hot. If they try to escape, there is a chance that they would be trapped in the much heavier timber which grows between them and their routes of retreat.
By evening, it is evident that the Heaven's Peak Fire will have to be fought on three fronts simultaneously: along the McDonald Creek sector (the original Glacier Wall Fire), Granite Park, and Ahern Pass.
The night proves to be very warm and windy. The fires continue to crown, even during the usually slow burning period after midnight. The Granite Park sector is especially active.
Drawn by the spectacular glow, employees at Many Glacier Hotel on the east side of the Continental Divide gather at a favorite party spot for a picnic. To Wendell Benson, a front desk employee, it looks bad. To Don Wheeler, the keyboard player with the hotel orchestra, it is a beautiful show, playing out its drama far away. He doubts the fire will jump the Garden Wall.
Monday, August 31:
With Forest Service assistance, 450 firefighters are made available to fight the original blaze to the west of McDonald Creek. Another 162 fire- fighters are moved up to Logan Pass where they will be moved into position to fight the fires at Granite Park and Ahern Pass.
During the morning hours, the west wind is estimated to be gusting between 30 and 55 miles per hour. A dangerously low humidity of 14% is measured at the Belton weather station.
3:00 pm: Firefighters are reported in full retreat on all fronts.
3:25 pm: A telegram is sent to the Director of the NPS:
"High winds blew all fires Glacier Park completely out of control this afternoon have ample organization handle situation if conditions get back to normal
Plans are formulated to have St. Mary owner Hugh Black take horses in to Granite Park Chalets to evacuate the employees. Before this plan has a chance to be carried out, Going-to-the-Sun Road is cut off by the fire. The Granite Park employees are trapped. They have no choice but to stand their ground and fight. The Granite Park gamble now becomes a matter of life or death.
The Chalet buildings are made of rock, so they are not in danger of burning, but the cedar shake roofs are in grave danger. The strategy is to cover the roofs with wet blankets, and keep them wet so that firebrands will not be able to ignite them.
When the fire does reach them, it reacts as they had hoped, moving quickly through the stunted tree growth and grass of the alpine meadows. The employees are able to save the Chalet structures and themselves!
By late afternoon, the wind intensifies to hurricane force, pushing firebrands over Swiftcurrent Pass, into the dense timbers at the head of Swiftcurrent Valley.
Fishing Guide (and Night Clerk) Ray Kinley, out on the lake with hotel guests, warily watches the situation from his boat. The sun is a dull orange ball, and the west wind is carrying black ash from the other side of the Continental Divide. Ash is floating on the surface of the water like burnt newspaper. The fishing, however, is not affected.
An afternoon hike led by Naturalist Will McLaughlin is "weighed down by a sense of foreboding." The sky is steadily growing darker and ash is drifting down around them. On reaching Grinnell Lake, they find the surface to be a "solid mulch of ash interspersed with small fire-blackened twigs meticulously laid on the lake's rough surface." Ash and small branches, some still glowing, are snuffed out as they reach the water.
6:00 pm: The blaze which has overrun the Granite Park Chalets reaches the top of the Garden Wall just south of Granite Park.
Around Sunset, Will McLaughlin is meeting with a group of hotel employees on the hill behind the hotel. They watch as a tree flares up near the summit below Swiftcurrent Pass. A tree farther down the slope bursts into flame. They watch, mesmerized as the entire wooded slope below Mount Wilbur is consumed in "a racing sheet of flame."
Ray Kinley, preparing to go to work as night clerk, notices two ominous red spots, glowing like dragon eyes high on the Divide near Swiftcurrent Pass.
8:00 pm: Omar Ellis, Manager of Many Glacier Hotel, reports the fire to A. A. Aszman, General Manager of Glacier Park Hotel Company in East Glacier. By this time the Swiftcurrent Valley fire has already developed into quite a blaze. Ellis advises Aszman that he should have the boilers steamed up to operate the fire pumps in case the fire does reach the hotel. Though preparations are being made to fight a fire, all scheduled events at the hotel continue to follow a normal routine.
8:45 pm: A telegram to the NPS Director reads:
"Extremely high winds very low humidity gave very bad day on fires McDonald Creek fire went up McDonald valley crossed Logan Pass highway quarter mile below tunnel on west side and swept up mountain side we have not yet determined exactly how far it has gone although spot fires were thrown into swiftcurrent valley on the east side of the divide stop from the scenic standpoint this is a major disaster of first magnitude
10:00 pm: The fire siren is sounded at Many Glacier Hotel. Employees living in the chalets situated on the side of Altyn Peak are instructed to go up and get as much of their belongings as they can. They are then instructed to report to their fire duty stations.
Don Wheeler goes up to pack his belongings. In his rush, he saves a bottle of liniment he had used on a sore thumb, but neglects to take his piano music library. As he struggles to get a trunk and suitcase down to a waiting truck, another employee tells him to look back. There is a bear charging right at him. He charges right past, not bothering to take any interest. Along with that bear, all types of animals are heading away from the fire.
After dropping off his trunk in the waiting truck, Wheeler goes to his fire station on the lake side of the main hotel building.
Wendell Benson is assigned to a crew which is sent down to the Motor Camp (now Swiftcurrent Inn) with a hose cart. The wind, which has been coming out of the west all day, suddenly switches around to the east. Jack McGregor, another member of the front desk crew, notices the change and says, "We're saved! The wind has changed to the east. That should stop the fire before it gets to us." He is wrong. What is happening is that the fire has grown into a firestorm. It has become so powerful that it is pulling in air from the east as well as using the strong west wind to fill its oxygen needs.
When the crew gets to the motor camp they set up their equipment and hose down the cabins. There isn't much that can be done. When they notice spot fires burning behind them, ignited by the shower of sparks falling all around them, they decide to drop everything and return to the hotel before the fire closes off their retreat route.
Park Rangers focus their efforts on saving the new museum building. They set up hoses and dampen the log structure down, but the heat proves to be too intense for them. They end up fleeing for their lives, not stopping to offer assistance at the hotel on their way out of the valley.
By the time Wendell Benson and the rest of his crew get back to the hotel, firebrands are shooting all the way across Swiftcurrent Lake. To Ray Kinley, Altyn Peak looks like a city lit up at night.
The hotel's ice house explodes into flame.
10:30 pm: Mr. Ellis notifies the 100 hotel guests of the situation and suggests that "it might be well for them to get up and pack their baggage because it (is) not known just what (will) happen and that there (are) buses waiting for them if they (feel) they should leave." Mr. Ellis also sends out most of the women workers to Glacier Park Lodge "where they (will be) taken care of." As the last buses leave, the fire is already burning along both sides of the road to the east of the hotel. As at Granite Park Chalets, a large number of employees are trapped by the advancing wall of flame.
The situation at the hotel is different from that at Granite Park, but the strategy is similar. The hotel is a wood structure with a slate roof. The strategy is to wet down the hotel building, trusting that the slate will protect the roof.
Fire crews, following a routine perfected through the repetition of weekly fire drills, take to their assigned stations, spraying the hotel with continuous streams of water in an attempt to keep the firebrands from igniting the wood structure.
At its worst, a water spout is created in the turbulence of the firestorm. It picks up Don Wheeler and throws him against the hotel. Luckily, he manages to hold onto the hose. During this time, the fire threatens the hotel from the north and east, as well as from the west.
As the fire rages, the Hotel Nurse, Bertha Hosford, makes rounds to keep an eye on the firefighters. She treats minor injuries like the firebrand which goes down the back of Don Wheeler's shirt, and gives each person salt tablets and water. When she feels it is needed, after a drink of water, she also makes sure that they take a 'bolt' from another jug. Medicinal spirits borrowed from the hotel's liquor cabinet are used to calm nerves and minimize the effects of wet clothing.
The leaders of the fire crews are Head Bell Hop Phillip March, and Head Maintenance Man Cy Stevenson. They also make regular rounds to see how their crews are doing. When the worst is over, firefighters are relieved to rest and dry out their clothing. Once relieved, they go into the hotel lobby where they are instructed to take off their wet clothes, setting them to dry by the fire. Meanwhile, they wrap themselves in Hudson Bay blankets. Don Wheeler likens this scene to a Gypsy encampment. Ray Kinley likens it to an Indian council.
The Assistant Housekeeper, known as "Ducky-Wucky," brews pots of coffee which are set on ironing boards around the lobby.
During that break, Wheeler goes to the front desk. Telephone lines ring briefly as the fire burns out connections. The telegraph wires, however, remain intact. He sends a telegram to his parents in Minneapolis. It reads, "Everything OK, don't worry!" Their reaction is, "What's going on?" They don't know anything about the fire until it is mentioned in the newspaper a couple of days later.
After the worst has passed, Omar Ellis sends a similar telegram to the Great Northern Home Office in St. Paul. He says, "We have saved the hotel!" A one word reply is received; "Why?" Everything is happening very quickly.
In keeping the flames from consuming the hotel, the firefighters completely empty the water tank.
Tuesday, September 1:
4:00 am: Telegram to NPS Director:
"Most disastrous fire in Glacier Park History resulted from yesterday's wind storm fire crossed swiftcurrent pass burned down Swiftcurrent valley destroyed everything there except many glacier hotel and we are hopeful this will be saved stop it is possible that fire has gone over ahern pass into the belly river although we have no information stop night has been very warm and fire has run uncontrolled up to the filing of this message at four am stop we are getting splendid cooperation from the Forest service who have sent in some of their finest overhead and have asked yellowstone to furnish possible men think the organization is functioning splendidly in this great emergency but we just cant do anything until weather conditions improve
Returning to the valley after helping with the evacuation of guests, Will McLaughlin manages to get back to the hotel. He is amazed to see that the hotel is still standing. Pulling up in front, McLaughlin notes that the lobby is deserted except for Omar Ellis. Ellis is sitting with his head bowed and arms crossed. Hearing McLaughlin approach, he looks up. Smiling grimly, he says, "Well Mac, we're still here."
Mr. Ellis briefly tells Mac of the night's heroic activities and then asks him to grab a room key if he wants to get some rest. Mac gladly accepts. Before going to sleep, he looks out toward the dark form of Altyn Peak. "A thousand candles seem to prick the blackness."
Waking with the first light, Don Wheeler is greeted by a heavy wall of dark gray smoke hanging low over the valley. The air is completely still. His first view of the heartbreaking devastation is of smoke rising straight up from freshly charred trees like thin black pencils. A quick glance over toward Altyn reveals that all of the employee chalets are destroyed. What remains are the piles of smoldering ashes, foundation blocks and fireplaces.
The Motor Camp is much more fortunate. The needles are burned from all of the mature pines in the camp, but only 19 of the cabins are destroyed. The fire had selectively moved through the camp, destroying all of the cabins in the "B" and "C" Circles, and Cabin D-1. Other cabins, however, sitting next to totally destroyed structures, are often untouched. Ray Kinley notes cast iron stoves melted into odd shapes, like taffy, while other cabins, close beside them, are left intact.
The Ranger Station is not so fortunate. All of the station's structures, including the new museum building, are totally destroyed. The only structures spared are the camp tender's cabin and one of the rest stations.
"MANY GLACIER HOTEL COMMA POWER PLANT COMMA AND TRANSPORT COMPANY BUILDINGS SAVED LAST NIGHT BUT RANGER STATION COMMA PUBLIC AUTO CAMP AND HOUSE- KEEPING CABINS ALL DESTROYED STOP NOW HAVE ABOUT SEVEN THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED ACRES BURNING WITH EVERY INDICATION ANOTHER BAD DAY STOP HAVE WIRED COOK AND YELLOWSTONE FOR OVERHEAD AND FOREST SERVICE SENDING IN BEST MEN THEY HAVE THIS REGION STOP ABOUT ONE THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED MEN WILL BE ON LINE TONITE BUT ALL WORK WILL PROBABLY BE FUTILE UNTIL WEATHER CONDITIONS IMPROVE STOP FIRE ABOUT MILE EAST MANY GLACIER THIS MORNING STOP AM HAVING AEROPLANE SURVEY TODAY
- E T SCOYEN
Late on Monday night, the wind storm subsides. Starting on Tuesday and continuing into Wednesday heavy rains douse the area.
Wednesday, September 2:
"Moderate general rains have greatly improved fire situation approximately 300 men will be released tomorrow also about two thirds of forest service overhead from this region stop In the Many Glacier area the Swiftcurrent Valley was absolutely denuded of all trees and practically all other vegetation however two-thirds of the timber at public auto camp escaped damage and scattered groups along lake shore stop all government buildings were destroyed with exception of one comfort station and camp tenders cabin and all except 12 hotel house-keeping cabins also burned four of the chalets across the bridge from the hotel and the ice house near the hotel burned stop buildings belonging to swanson hays and noffsinger escaped damage if rains continue through night fire danger should drop from extreme to moderate stop five other fires started in park last night by lightning one on snyder ridge spreading to three acres but these should all be controlled without trouble. . . .
A couple of days later, hotel employees get a chance to hike up toward Swiftcurrent Pass. They see the true extent of the destruction. Most striking are the carcasses of animals unable to escape the fire. A particularly heart rending scene is of a mountain goat wandering around, blinded by the fire. The Park Service sends in sharpshooters to kill such wounded animals.
The hotel does not open again during the 1936 season. The employees spend the remainder of their contract time putting out remnant fires, hiding in the roots and trunks of partially burned trees throughout the valley.
In a September 10 report to the NPS Director, Superintendent Scoyen says, "I have never seen as complete a burn-out as occurred in Swiftcurrent Valley. With the exception of a few swampy areas, every green living thing, from the rocks on one side of the valley to the other, has been destroyed."
Later in that report, Scoyen goes on to say, "The Many Glacier Hotel and buildings belonging to the Swanson Boat Company, Glacier Transport Company, and Park Saddle Company, were saved, principally due to effective work on the part of their employees. . . . "
A September 25 memorandum to the Director of the National Park Service from Chief Forester J. D. Coffman says, "Looking back over the situation, two things occur to me that might have been done in advance of the fire which might have had some effect upon the final outcome if they had been done. The first is the earlier establishment of the Swiftcurrent Mountain Fire Lookout. . . .The second point which occurs to one is the fact that if there have been a trail in this locality. . . ."
As a result of the Heaven's Peak Fire, two lookouts, one on Swiftcurrent Mountain and the other on Heaven's Peak, and a fire trail are constructed in the vicinity of this blaze.
Today the lookout on Swiftcurrent Mountain remains as an active monument to those two weeks of fire activity and the people whose lives were touched by that dramatic incident.
Ray Kinley perhaps best expressed the sentiment of those whose lives were touched by the Heaven's Peak Fire. When asked what it was like, he turned his head just a little, got a twinkle of recognition in his eye. Selected his words carefully, he offered, "It was as if we were all in Dante-Land - - the Inferno, don't you know."
The Glacier Park Foundation gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the following contributors: