Each year Glacier National Park averages 14 fires a year with about 5,000 acres burned. Most of these fires are so small that visitors never see smoke or flames. The fires of 2003, however, were seen and felt throughout most of western Montana. The first fire was started by lightening on July 18 in the Flathead's Northfork Valley. The fire quickly spread to Glacier National Park and also threatened residential areas of West Glacier.
Although the fires caused the park to lose 43% of its business, as compared to the summer of 2002, the park remained open the entire duration of the fires. Many people thought that all of the park was on fire, when in reality only one-third was closed off to tourists.
Firefighters were fighting off the fires with many different tactics. Thousands of gallons of water were dumped on trees and buildings that were threatened with flames. Firefighters also fought the fire with fire using the "burnout" tactic, burning fuel in the path of the fire in order to prevent the fire from advancing.
The fires of 2003 left 85% of the park untouched. The historic lodges and hotels remained intact. Park officials claim that the average tourist won't even notice the effects of the fire. However, the burned areas of the park are fascinating, educational, and worth visiting. Visitors will be able to witness the rebirth of a forest.
Glacier National Park recognizes that fires are a natural and healthy part of the ecosystem. Fires keep a balanced mix of plants and trees, and clean up the dead fall, reducing the potential intensity of future fires. Fires also allow for a succession of plant growth and control insect invasions. Fires have continuously shaped the landscape of Glacier National Park. The park has an active Fire Management Program that includes specialists, ecologists, and fire monitors. The management program oversees the fire operations in the park. During periods when there are no fires in the park, the specialists assist fires in other national parks in Montana.