Fiery red sunsets and smoky inversions are part of what we’ve come to expect over the past 15 years during August and September in Montana. Nobody likes “fire season,” but we’ve accepted it as much of a part of the calendar as spring thaw and the holidays. This year’s fire season, however, is hitting me much closer to home.
This past spring, I moved 16 miles south of Missoula to two acres just outside the largely commuter town of Lolo. My new home is in the wide spot of a canyon at the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains, tucked back off the two-lane highway that connects residents of the narrow canyon to Lolo and Missoula. Having lived most my life between Missoula and the Bitterroots, I knew that moving to a rural setting made fire a likely part of my future, but I sure didn’t expect to be in the direct line of a 19,000-acre wildfire less than five months after moving in.
I wasn’t concerned in mid-July by the plume of smoke rising from the mountains south of my home.
But over the next few days the lightning-ignited blaze had doubled, and then it was doubling every day.
Heavy equipment rumbled up and down the road behind my house day and night, clearing a fire line to separate my neighborhood from the growing fire.
The lightning struck the south side of Lolo Peak, in a Wilderness Area that hasn’t burned for over 140 years. Dense fuel in an area too steep to be safely accessed by fire fighters coupled with the driest July on record has resulted in what is today a more than 19,000-acre blaze that is threatening not only my rural neighborhood, but also more urban areas, including the towns of Lolo and Florence.
When the evacuation warning came in early August, I decided to stay with my parents for a few days. Leaving wasn’t mandatory, but I wanted to get away from the smoke and the stress and most of my things were there anyway.
All packed up and getting ready to step into my car, I was feeling a little teary when my neighbor drove up. “Welcome to your first evac!” She shouted from her rolled down car window. “How you hanging in?” I nodded dumbly, trying not to look as pathetic as I felt. “This is my fourth.” she told me. “It’ll be ok."
The fire moved slowly most days, giving us time to clean roofs and gutters, cut back vegetation, water lawns. As the weeks dragged on, I did become calmer about the whole thing.
Then a wind storm kicked up and the fire made a two-mile run overnight, moving to within one to two miles of the homes in my neighborhood. This time evacuation was mandatory.
When our nomadic ancestors were threatened by fire, they would just pick up their homes and move, a freedom I have wished for on more than one occasion. They also set fire intentionally to clear the undergrowth from their hunting grounds, and this had the added benefit of reducing fuels in the forests near their homes. They fit their lives to the natural world instead of the other way around. For better or worse, we’ve flipped that equation, or at least we’ve tried.
Like so many issues around our relationship to nature, the questions come easier than the answers. Living is such close proximity to a wildfire has forced these questions to the front of my mind. Is the management of fire something we can or should leave to one agency? For how long can our current model be sustained? Could we reduce, even offset, the cost of fighting fire by investing more in forest management? Whose responsibility is this?
When I lived 16 miles north, in Missoula, to me, it wasn’t wildfire, but the people who were living “out there,” putting themselves in harm’s way, that were the problem. Now I wonder how far “out there” actually is. What concerns me the most right now is the eastern edge of the fire that is closing in on Lolo and Florence, the edge where, just this morning, it was announced that homes had been lost overnight.
This year, Montana’s wildfires aren’t just a threat to people living in remote swaths of forest, off the grid. Entire towns are being threatened. Lolo, Florence, Seeley Lake, Eureka and Superior are all impacted by wildfires this summer, and smoke has lingered above Missoula for more than a month. In this rural state, is not every town “in the woods?” We carve out these little areas for our houses and towns and some are more urban than others, but we are all of us living in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
During the first two weeks of this fire, fire fighters bulldozed a 30-mile line through the vegetation around the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains. These fire lines were built to box the fire in with the hopes that it could be kept out of the urban areas and infrastructure that lie to three sides of the fire: the towns of Lolo and Florence, the many small neighborhoods, like mine, that dot the landscape in between, and important transportation corridors like Highways 12 and 93.
I am now even more appreciative of the tireless efforts these professionals and law enforcement officials dedicate to keeping people and homes safe.
This fire has not only cost millions of dollars, but it has taken the life of a 29-year-old fire fighter named Brent Witham. We are all saddened by his tragic death and I am now even more appreciative of the tireless efforts these professionals and law enforcement officials dedicate to keeping people and homes safe. The Lolo Peak Fire, like the many other fires in western Montana this year, is not a fire that we would be fighting if it weren’t a threat to homes and infrastructure. On the other hand, I question if this fire would have burned for so long or got so big a decade ago, two decades ago?
Despite the winter’s above average snowpack, fire season came two weeks early to Montana this year. We are experiencing a record-breaking dry summer with no rain in sight. If this is the new norm, how are we going to deal with it?