Throughout the eons, lightning storms have roiled in the mountains of Montana, sometimes dropping sheets of welcomed rain and swelling mountain streams, sometimes only putting on electrifying displays of nature’s power, and sometimes exploding trees and igniting fires. Some of these fires burn slowly. Some dissipate within days. And some become legends to all who occupy the landscapes. The Big Burn of 1910 killed scores of people, scorched hundreds of miles of forests, and became the “lesson learned” for the US Forest Service, who adopted an “out by 10” mantra for extinguishing fires before 10 a.m. and before they could take hold of the land.
It was an honorable goal, but a misguided one. As the science of ecology grew in the ’70s, so did our understanding of forest ecosystems. Fire, it seems, is an integral part of the Northern Rockies forests. The trees, the soils, many of the animals, and early man knew this and lived in adaptation to it. Only modern man tried to alter it, dominate it, bring it to terms and, in so doing, we have only upped the intensity and consequences of fire.
Starting with a single lightning bolt on the far southwest flank of Lolo Peak on July 15, 2017, the fire stayed in the wilderness for nearly a month, sending smoke high into the sky, but presenting no real danger to humans. As July turned to August, conditions changed. Unrelenting days of high temperatures, low air humidity, and winds from the southwest, pushed the fire toward the community of Lolo. The on August 18, the fire erupted like a volcano, spread over the ridge to the eastern slope of the mountains, and ran south through the Bitterroot Valley, sending people and animals running from its fury.
Telephones lit up, text messages flew form cell tower to cell tower, and emergency personnel arrived by the thousands with their trucks and hoses and determined young men and women. One young man lost his life from a falling snag tree; several homes were burned. Residents throughout the valley from Lolo to Stevensville rounded up their livestock for evacuations, grabbed their precious personal items, and fled to friends and relatives and community shelters. People organized food deliveries for stranded animals, for displaced people, for firefighters looking for a home-cooked meal. Signs of “thank you” sprouted in front of many businesses and everyone pitched in, ready to assist at a moment’s notice.
Then a weather inversion moved in and dropped the smoke to the valley floor. It shrouded everything and everybody. It made breathing hurt, stung the eyes, left a bad taste in mouths, and dirtied everything in its path. We were warned not to exercise, to stay indoors, and to get away if possible. But, of course, you can’t respond to the emergency from the comforts of your home. There was no escape. Things had to be done out there where the smoke was thick and the flames could be felt, if not seen.
Facing each morning by walking through the door to a wall of smoke made the world seem heavy, burdensome, and dark. There has been no horizon to draw one’s eyes. The irritating smell that rushes into your nose and the soot that continues to layer every deck rail, each tree limb, and covers your car immediately saps your morning energy, making the day’s beginning seem like night’s end. Please just make it stop.
Montana summers are made for outdoors. This is where we thrive. Losing our outdoor playgrounds to the fire is a violation of our very beings. We feel robbed, victimized. Our minds know that fire is not personal, but try telling that to our hearts.
So here we are. Waiting for the smoke to clear, for the winter snows to cover the newly burnt landscapes with white, to hide our sorrow, to give us some time to grieve. And it will take time. Knowing that this is a natural part of our world helps only a little right now. Our emotions are in no mood for a talking to; we need solace. We need to tell our stories and hear those of our neighbors. We need to go back to our favorite haunts and see—see for ourselves what is left, what is gone. Black ghost trees will be with us for years, and we must learn to see their beauty. We must get through our anger to welcome the black-backed woodpeckers that seek these burnt trees to make their homes. And may we rejoice in the blooming fireweed that, come spring, is sure to carpet the land with high pink stalks that reach for the sky. May they take our hearts with them.
Dunrovin Ranch has in the past been impacted by forest fires.
In 2013 the Lolo Creek Complex was clearly visible from the ranch. The Canadian National Guard set up a fire camp on our winter field and Dunrovin housed evacuee horses.
During the same summer of 2013, a lightening bolt rocked Dunrovin and started a fire across the Bitterroot River from the ranch that had us up all nigh watching and waiting to evacuate. Luckily the wind calmed and the fire settled down.
For more information on the emotional toll our fires have had on our communities, please listen to Montana Public Radio’s broadcast.
If you live in western Montana, please consider joining us for our Fire Medicine retreat on September 8, 9, and 10 to come together to share our fire stories.