Fire managers “underestimated” the risk that the 2017 Sprague fire would burn the iconic Sperry Chalet, according to a report released Thursday afternoon.
An analysis into fire managers’ and firefighters’ actions praises them for saving other structures in the area. But the investigation by the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service notes a number of lessons learned from the demise of the Sperry Chalet including:
• A 2011 structure protection plan for the Sperry Chalet dormitory didn’t include the use of sprinklers. And even if it had, none of the firefighters assigned to the chalet was trained to safely install roof sprinklers once the decision was made to use them. Instead, a park maintenance man who “was nervous about working on the roof” eventually installed the sprinkler system.
• Firefighters at the chalet weren’t trained in “fall protection” that could have allowed them to safely climb the two-story chalet to wrap the roof, eaves and upper areas of the odd-shaped building in fire-resistant materials.
• Firefighters didn’t know that 12 large propane tanks had been placed under the dining hall at the Sperry complex by employees closing it for the season. The tanks were obscured by fire-resistant materials.
• In public meetings and on social medial, officials put a lot of emphasis on how well protected the structures were without mentioning that there were no guarantees firefighters could protect every structure.
The release of the Facilitated Learning Analysis comes two weeks after a story in the Missoulian reported how fire managers put the bulk of their resources into protecting Lake McDonald Lodge and nearby private homes. They expected the rocky terrain, sprinkler system, minimal fireproofing and the four firefighters could adequately protect the Sperry Chalet.
“The risk to Sperry Chalet was underestimated," the review released Thursday notes. "There was so much lead time that confidence was high in regards to being able to defend it. The structural protection at Sperry Chalet was reasonable from a wildland fire management perspective. It provided both defensible space and the ability to defend the structures from flames and embers.”
However, the difficult situation firefighters faced when an ember storm sparked the blaze on Aug. 31 that consumed the stone and timber chalet was “inherent in the design and location” of the Sperry Chalet complex, the report notes. Historic structures weren’t built to reduce potential ignition from wildfire embers and are instead “highly ignitable.”
And while the landscape below Sperry is mainly boulder-strewn with few flammable materials, the dormitory was located to provide guests with a view of the valley below, placing it “at the top of a chimney canyon, which is one of the most dangerous locations from downhill fires.”
“Given the location of the chalet, the pretty sparse fuels and the rocks, it seems like a very defensible structure,” Dan Buckley, the National Park Service branch chief of wildland fire and one of the reports’ authors, said on Thursday. “The firefighters felt pretty good about what they had done and the situation. They got caught by surprise by the ember that penetrated the building.
“Just like firefighters everywhere and everyone at Glacier National Park, they feel a tremendous loss. Nobody goes to work and says, ‘I hope it burns down today.’ They put a lot of time, energy and effort into protecting it.”
The in-depth Facilitated Learning Analysis and accompanying Fire Investigation Report are more than what’s typically undertaken for a structure loss, but was done in light of the Sperry Chalet’s historic and economic value, Buckley said.
The analysis noted that Glacier’s fire staff incorrectly believed that recently installed Class B fire retardant wood shake shingles, coupled with the expectation water could be applied to all areas of the roofs, was adequate. But when firefighters implemented the untested 2011 plan, the attempt to just use hoses was inadequate due to a lack of water pressure.
Recommendations include assessing whether installing external quick-connect sprinklers on a structure will reduce risks to firefighters. In addition, national parks’ structure protection plans should consider ember storms in the future and identify suitable mitigations.
The analysis also noted that national park wildland firefighters typically “are not equipped or routinely trained in fall protection to provide the necessary safety margin for climbing structures to wrap them in shelter wrap. This also prevents them from being able to safely install sprinkler systems on a roof if necessary.”
Because more national parks are experiencing larger wildfires putting more historic, remote structures at risk, the report calls for targeting specific national park wildland firefighters to receive training in “fall protection.”
The report also calls for communicating to the public that, despite the best efforts of firefighters, not every building can be saved. The need to change that message is not specific to the National Park Service, but to the fire community as a whole as an educational effort.
At the Sperry Chalet, the firefighters cleared dead trees from a helicopter landing area, but thought they couldn’t cut any green trees. That posed a dangerous situation for the helicopter pilot, who was nervous that the blades would hit the trees, and prompted the head firefighter at the chalet to “pull the safety card” to get permission to drop the trees. The report calls for this to be used as a case study in future trainings.
The report adds that no resource advisors were at the Sperry Chalet directing what trees could be felled as firefighters prepared to make a stand.
“All consulting for desired work was done via radio or cell phone with fire resources on the ground,” the report notes. “This contributed to the communication difficulties over what fuels reduction was permissible.”
In the future, the resource advisors should be on location when historic structures are at risk, it said.
In a press release, Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow thanked the review team and the firefighters.
“We appreciate their work and professionalism while reviewing this difficult event,” Mow said. “We also deeply appreciate the work of the firefighters who tirelessly fought the fire throughout the night on August 31 at the Sperry Chalet Complex, saving the historic dining room and multiple other important buildings. We now turn our attention to restoring the Sperry Chalet experience for the next 100 years."