Wildfire claims historic chalet in Glacier Park

Fire

Shawn Gargac

Sarah Gargac shared this photograph of Sperry Chalet on Facebook late Thursday, after learning it had been destroyed by fire.

Glacier National Park’s historic and much-loved Sperry Chalet was destroyed late Thursday when high winds pushed the Sprague fire to the east and it overtook the building, despite firefighters’ best efforts.

The main building was lost at about 6 p.m., according to Glacier Park officials, who made the announcement via Facebook.

“A highly skilled group of firefighters were staged at Sperry Chalet over the past week,” the post said. “Those firefighters had extensive hose lay, sprinklers and pump system installed to protect all of the structures associated with the chalet.”

Park officials reported that during Thursday afternoon’s windstorm, firefighters were supported by three helicopters and “made a valiant stand to save the structure, but were unsuccessful in saving the main Sperry Chalet.”

All firefighters were safe and unharmed. Five firefighters remained on site Thursday night and were actively engaged in protecting the remaining structures near the chalet.

In 1912, Italian stonemasons working for the Great Northern Railway built Sperry Chalet’s kitchen and dining hall in a 6,580-foot elevation glacial cirque overlooking Lake McDonald.

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As told by Ray Djuff and Chris Morrison in their history, “View with a Room,” Sperry started serving guests in 1913. The kitchen staff had the stone building for their use; the guests stayed in a tent camp. Work began on the chalet that same summer.

With 17 guest rooms, the chalet accommodated 40 to 50 guests who hiked a steep, 6.4-mile trail that began along the lower Going-to-the-Sun Road and climbed 3,432 feet in elevation before reaching the spectacular structure.

Thousands of former guests and employees of the chalet filled Glacier National Park’s Facebook post with comments Thursday night, lamenting the building’s destruction but grateful no firefighters were injured or worse.

“So sad,” wrote Mary Howard. “Thank you to all firefighters who risked their lives trying to save the chalet.”

Jack Pugh witnessed the blowup from the safety of the lakeshore: “Unfortunately, we unknowingly watched it from the Apgar boat launch. Nothing could survive that horrendous fire we saw running up the draw. With the strong gusty and erratic winds at elevation. It looked like it was eating everything in sight.”

sperry

Glacier National Park

Firefighters spent the past week working to lay hoses and prepare sprinklers in an attempt to save Sperry Chalet, should the Sprague fire overtake the historic structure.

“I was just there two months ago,” wrote Donald Jones. “What a shame this beautiful structure was lost to a fire.”

“My husband Shawn Gargac and I are absolutely heartbroken,” wrote Sarah Gargac. “This place changed our life! We will be praying for the firefighters still up there trying to protect the other structures!”

“So sad to hear this, and I feel really grateful that we were lucky enough to spend a few days at this beautiful building in a truly breathtaking spot,” Heather Zimmerman said. “Thank you, firefighters, for trying so hard to save it.”

The Sprague fire was ignited by lightning on Aug. 10, and Sperry Chalet was evacuated five days later. At the time, park officials and incident commanders said the primary danger was to hikers on trails. Several trails in the area have been closed since then, including the Sperry Chalet trail itself.

Thursday’s blowup prompted the closure of the trail to Avalanche Lake, which had previously been open. Glacier Park posted a time-lapse video showing the quick progression of the fire in the windstorm, and numerous park visitors said they watched the blowup from the lakeshore.

Red flag conditions were present over the Sprague fire when flames made the run on the chalet. West-southwest winds at 15 to 25 mph surfaced, along with low humidity.

Winds were expected to taper off in the valleys overnight, but Friday will again be a “heads-up day, with breezy winds and lowered humidity,” according to the fire’s information officers. “The weekend will bring a warming and drying trend along with light winds.”

The chalet was lost just one day after Lake McDonald Lodge closed for the season a month earlier than expected because of heavy, unhealthy readings of smoke in that area, also from the Sprague fire. Much of the rest of Glacier Park is relatively clear of smoke, and most trails and all other lodges are open for business.

Sherry Devlin is a longtime Missoula journalist who writes occasional stories for Missoula Current.

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