This is the story of my encounter with the Red Eagle Fire in Glacier National Park in August of 2006. It was one of the saddest and most disturbing things I have seen in nature. I hated seeing my favorite National Park get destroyed by fire, but at the same time it was fascinating to watch the scene unfold before me.
Wildfires can devastate a pristine landscape. They are most often caused by lightning, but sometimes result from human carelessness. The cause of the Red Eagle Fire in the summer of 2006 is still a mystery. Park authorities did not rule out lightning strike or human activity as a possible cause of the large forest fire.
The fire began on July 28th, nine days before we arrived in Glacier National Park. It originated near Red Eagle Lake, which is only a couple of miles south of St. Mary Lake and about ten miles southwest of the town of St. Mary. The fire spread swiftly after it was first reported. Within a few days it burnt a path of charred forest across thousands of acres.
When I first heard news of the fire we were in Olympic National Park in Washington and still several days away from making our way to Glacier. But I was worried about possible restrictions or even the park closing based on the way the fire was ravaging eastern Glacier.
Just a few days after the fire began; it quickly spiraled out of control. The town of St. Mary was evacuated, as were some campgrounds inside of Glacier National Park. Portions of Going-to-the-Sun Road and Highway 89 (which runs along the eastern side of the park) were closed.
Thankfully the fire steered clear of St. Mary and everything reopened by August 3rd. That meant there were still a couple of days before we would arrive for the fire to die down. That didn’t happen.
By the time we reached St. Mary Campground late that August 6th night, the fire was still only 50% contained. It had mowed down 27,000 acres of pure mountain wilderness so far.
The stench of freshly roasted trees hung in the air that first night in camp. Tall columns of dark gray smoke rose into the sky on the opposite side of St. Mary Lake. What I initially thought was a large cloud in the sky was actually dark billowing smoke from the fire. After nightfall I was able to see colossal orange flames off in the distance shining bright through the surrounding darkness.
The following morning we heard helicopters overhead. They were assisting in the firefighting effort. By the tenth day of the fire there were several hundred firefighters combating the growing beast. In addition to the mounting numbers of people involved and the helicopters above, several water tankers and plenty of fire engines were utilized.
We did some bouncing around on our first full day in the park. We both slept in, with Joe staying in the tent until nearly 10:00 a.m. We sat around camp for a bit. Then we stopped off at Sun Point and hiked the short trail to Baring Falls. We spent the rest of the morning back at camp.
After a lunch of sandwiches we decided it was time to do some exploring. It got very hot out and there was little shade at our campsite so we decided to head to the Two Medicine area. In doing so we would have to head outside of the park and then drive south along the park’s eastern border for about thirty miles before reentering the park at the Two Medicine Entrance.
Our drive down route 89 was both surreal and spooky. We passed right through the Red Eagle Fire’s recent path. The aroma of death was oppressive in the town of St. Mary despite the town remaining unscathed. I took that as a hint that the stench would get much worse before it got better. I was right.
The town of St. Mary is so small that we were out of there within two minutes. After a couple of miles we were heading straight into a thick forest along the 89. The road wound through the woods and into the heart of a wilderness graveyard. The highway’s regular speed limit of 70 mph was cut in half to a mere 35 mph. We passed a few open fields cluttered with water tankers, trucks, and tents. Large crudely painted signs stood beside the road every mile or so warning to watch for fire vehicles entering the road.
Both sides of the road were lined with dense forest. However, long stretches of trees had been incinerated. Thin tree trunks remained, their limbs and leaves singed to oblivion. The area reeked of a very strong campfire odor. I normally enjoy the smell, but this was such a strong and overpowering stench. Considering it represented the death and destruction of such a beautiful area the smell left me disgusted. We had to keep the car windows rolled up the entire time to block out as much of the smell as possible.
The road curved around turns and went up and down small hills. As a result there were several stretches with guard rails. I should emphasize the word “were,” because the fire had disintegrated almost all of the fences. All barricades made of wood were turned to ashes. Black stains from the fire lined the road where the fence previously stood. The few metal guard rails persevered through the fire, but were heavily scarred from the extreme heat and roaring flames. For the most part the charred forest was only on one side of the road at a time, but sometimes the skeleton trees spanned both sides. It was in those instances that I saw the pavement had been severely blackened as a result of the fire spreading across the highway. I could not fathom how the fire could burn with enough force and demolition to jump across two or three lanes of pavement.
After about ten miles we cleared the eerie wilderness cemetery. I was happy to be out of there. I had never seen anything so creepy and disturbing in nature. The smell followed us to the tiny town of Kiowa, where we continued south along route 49. After nine more miles we turned onto Two Medicine Road, which took us east, back into Glacier National Park.
We followed the road to the end of its nine mile length. We were in the heart of Two Medicine. There is a campground, General Store, and Ranger Station there. There is no lodge or restaurant in the area so it sees a lot less traffic. The fact that it is miles from Going-to-the-Sun Road doesn’t hurt either. Two Medicine’s relative seclusion doesn’t make it any less awe-inspiring. The idyllic setting is just as peaceful and beautiful as any other in the park.
At the end of the road is Two Medicine Lake, a smooth and stunning blue body of water. It is not quite as big as Lake McDonald or St. Mary Lake, but is just as impressive. The lake is surrounded by a dark green coniferous forest. Two huge mountains cast long shadows over Two Medicine Lake. Sinopah Mountain is just west of the lake while Rising Wolf Mountain, a hulking mass of granite, towers just above the north shore.
We spent most of our afternoon in Two Medicine. We embarked on two short and easy hikes to waterfalls. First we went to Running Eagle Falls and then to Appistoki Falls. The distance was less than two miles for the two hikes combined. After the short hikes we relaxed by Two Medicine Lake for a while. We considered renting kayaks, but couldn’t find any workers at the boat dock. So, we agreed to head back to the St. Mary Campground.
Once again we had to exit the park in order to head north back up to St. Mary and Going-to-the-Sun Road. The drive through the ghastly fire-marred forest was no less unsettling on our return trip. We got out of there as fast as we could and moved on.
Just before reentering the park in St. Mary we stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few things for dinner. There was a small fleet of fire engines, tanker trucks, and large vans outside the store. It looked like a bunch of the firefighting crew had the same idea as us. A couple dozen firemen were inside the store. They were all covered in soot and stunk of smoke. Most of them were wearing yellow jumpsuits smeared with black stains. They were all men, and most of them looked to be Native Americans. Almost all of them appeared to be under 25 years old. Again, this was just a small sample of the firemen battling the enormous blaze. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for those young men to try to combat a fire that was several miles wide and had flames much taller than them. I did not envy them, but I commend them in heroically saving the town of St. Mary and much of Glacier National Park. The fire ended up burning over 34,000 acres.