Conditions in Glacier National Park were tinder-dry early last week. The National Weather Service outlined northwest Montana in bold red: “critical” conditions for wildfires. Relative humidity was 20 percent at best, and winds were blowing from the west around 20 mph. On top of that, the forecast included dry thunderstorms, which are exactly what they sound like — all of the lightning, none of the rain.
When Justin Bilton and his 70-year-old father drove into Glacier for a camping trip on Aug. 12, everything was fine. Three hours later, it was hell on Earth. A fire ignited by lightning the previous evening on Howe Ridge, northwest of Lake McDonald, grew from a few acres to several thousand over the course of a few hours. “Windy and dry conditions fueled the fire to rapidly expand,” the National Park Service wrote.
Three hours after arriving at their campsite, Bilton and his father turned around to drive out of the park through the fire. The video shows flames and sparks leaping in front of the car; the audio records the conversation that could well have been their last.
“Do I go?” Bilton asked as he looked at the flames building in front of the car.
“We’re going to find out up here in a minute, aren’t we?” his father replied.
“Dad, what if the car blows up?”
“Oh, my God.”
“Easy, easy… go, go, go.”
“Dad, the car is heating up. It’s gonna explode.”
“We’re all right.”
“Jesus God help us.”
It didn’t take long for them to hit a roadblock — a burning tree across the road in the middle of a burning forest. Bilton’s dad wanted to get out, put on a pair of gloves and move the tree. The video ends there.
On Facebook, Bilton said they reversed the car back through everything they had just escaped. When they reached the trail head, they abandoned the car, which burned shortly afterward. In an unimaginable stroke of luck, there were two park employees in a boat when they reached the shore of Lake McDonald. Bilton credits the pair with saving their lives.