A fiery test in land of glaciers and grizzlies

Despite one of the worst fire seasons in the park in 50 years, it's been a benign summer in the West.

By , Special to the Christian Science Monitor

Mark VanArtsdale has arguably one of the most inspiring commutes in America. The view from his windshield delivers panoramas of chiseled mountains, flowered meadows, and emerald green tarns.

But in recent days, Mr. VanArtsdale has seen another natural wonder on the way to his boat company in Glacier National Park: a shroud of smoke in the distance and the front end of a massive wildfire crawling into the McDonald Valley.

For Glacier, this summer is turning out to be one of the worst fire seasons in the past half century. Three major fires are currently burning in the park and surrounding area. They've already blackened nearly 50,000 acres.

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To be sure, the park is not burning down. There are places in its 1 million acres where even the drifting smoke is absent, and visitors to many parts of the park have little to worry about.

But northwest Montana is still one of the tensest spots in the nation right now. More than 2,000 firefighters have been sent in to fight the various blazes, 5,000 people have been temporarily evacuated from the park, and 500 residences are at risk.

Earlier this week, fire officials decided on the dramatic - and daring - move of fighting fire with fire, burning 2,000 acres near the town of West Glacier in an effort to stop the advancing blaze. Officials said they would know within the next few days whether the tactic would be successful.

"I'm not going to pull any punches," fire behavior specialist John See told a gathering of 300 people late Tuesday. "It's going to be challenging."

Despite fire's footprint here in Montana, it's been a relatively mild summer in the West. A few months ago, fire forecasters were issuing dire predictions, worrying over the lingering drought and the proliferation of undergrowth caused by a wet spring.

But those fears have mostly proved unfounded. As of this week, there have been 67 percent fewer fires this year than the 10-year average for the period. The 1.8 million acres that have burned so far is about 80 percent of the 10-year average.

The summer has been nothing compared with last year's epic season, when the federal costs of fighting wildfires set a record and nearly 4 million acres had burned by the beginning of August.

What's remarkable in Montana, notes Amy Vanderbilt, Glacier Park spokeswoman, is how fast the forest, dampened by a relatively moist spring, has turned tinder dry, parched by high temperatures and and breezy, rainless thunderstorms that bring lightning strikes.

"The kind of fire behavior we're witnessing is different from what we've seen in the past," says Ms. Vanderbilt, who also worked in Yellowstone during the 1988 fires.

VanArtsdale, for one, is mostly concerned about how the images of Glacier's fires - dramatic backdrops of orange flames, smoke, and evacuating visitors - will affect tourism. Travelers, he worries, might think Glacier is burning down.

"It's frustrating, it really is," he says. "There are fires burning, but a huge portion of Glacier remains open."

His is a common concern for those who depend on parks and wilderness areas for their income. And for good reason. During Yellowstone's famous 1988 fires, when nearly 800,000 of the 2.1 million-acre park burned, visitation dropped 15 percent. One University of Montana researcher estimated the fires cost the area $60 million of lost tourist dollars over the next few seasons.

In Colorado last year, residents were outraged over Gov. Bill Owens's famous comment that "all of Colorado is burning." His words, they said, drove away tourists even from areas unaffected by fire.

Former Yellowstone superintendent Bob Barbee, who managed Yellowstone during the 1988 fires, now looks north to his colleagues in Glacier with sympathy. He says the American public, on the whole, has a greater understanding of wildfire than it did in the 1980s.

But Mr. Barbee believes people's impressions of the extent and danger of fires - fanned by vivid media images - are often exaggerated. "Forest fires, as events, do lend themselves on occasion to high drama," he says. In Yellowstone, reporters often wanted to file reports standing in front of backfires, "giving an impression to viewers that wasn't always accurate."

At this point, Montana firefighters' efforts are centered on three blazes: the 12,000-acre Robert (the fire that threatens West Glacier), the 18,000-acre Trapper Creek, and the 20,000-acre Wedge Canyon fires. Officials worry the Trapper Creek and Wedge Canyon blazes could expand and cross the border into Canadian timberlands that lie upwind of developments in Waterton Lakes National Park. Already, the Wedge Canyon fire has burned six homes and 23 other structures outside the park.

Monday's decision to light the backburn near West Glacier was an aggressive move - driven by forecasts of high temperatures and strong winds - to keep the Roger fire from worsening.

And in one major victory, crews were successful in defending the historic and famous Granite Park Chalet in a remote stretch of backcountry that draws hikers who need reservations years in advance.

The situation is far from resolved, and firefighters have some tough days ahead. But even VanArtsdale is guardedly optimistic. "Worst-case scenario is that we'll lose half our boat trip business," he says. "Best case is that these fires die down and tourists who have plans to visit the park will still come to enjoy the time of their lives. They're not going to let a little smoke get in their way."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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