Savage Summers |
by Kathe Campbell
It's been several years since my little 7000 foot mountain ranch was enshrouded in choking wildfire smoke from somewhere in our beautiful western Montana. Saturday morning I stepped out to turn on the irrigation only to find my mountains had disappeared behind a grayish, smelly pallor. It's the huge Pattengail burn due west of us, I murmured to my pup. And then I sat down and said a small prayer for those brave fire fighters, and another that my own forest remains unscathed this summer.
Bringing to mind what so much of Montana endured in the draught-ridden August of 2000, I dug into my memories and my digitals. As if sitting on our mountain guarding home and hearth with trepidation wasn't enough, we were about to live life on the edge once again.
After 35 years as insurance adjusters, my husband, Ken, and I took cameras in hand and headed west and south to handle the claim of a high end resort. Playing havoc with the fish population, Montana's sick looking blue ribbon Big Hole River had bared her mammoth boulders through skimpy warm waters. All rivers were closed to fishing, and the sight was a heartbreaker.
Some 50 miles out we observed a large fire camp staging area appearing as a small community that had sprung up over night. Camps were everywhere as either made-made or lightening caused fires were raging west of the Rocky Mountain front.
At 7400 feet we topped Chief Joseph Pass over the Continental Divide. The MHP, forest service vehicles, army hummers, tanker trucks, helicopters, construction equipment and fire crews were preparing for action. Flagged on, we two old fools rushed in where only angels feared to tread. Smoke was so dense it was hard to believe we were really going to enter Idaho in all her devastating majesty. I began to wonder if we were completely daft as signs warned of visibility changes and all side roads were barred. The next 30 miles saw only one other traveler leaving us isolated amongst the towering firs, still so perfect, so green, and so unviolated. There would be no escaping.
At last, the north fork of the Salmon River turnoff. The once bustling corner that catered to travelers, hikers, horse packers, and river rafting tours, looked like a small ghost town. Only the gas pumps and cafe remained open to serve steak dinners to fire fighting personnel. Other than fire crews, we seemed to be the only civilians traveling the dirt road to our destination, deep into the famous and pristine River Of No Return. But for the smothering mantle of smoke and huge brownish clouds of erupting blazes, this would have been a glorious tour.
Where there were helicopters, there were fire camps whose staff escorted us through treacherous hot spots and fumy miles of roadside flare-ups. Wildfires can move at tremendous speeds, up to 40 miles a day, consuming up to 1,000 acres per hour. Clouds of burning embers pushed relentlessly ahead of the flames and crossed firebreaks, and powerful updrafts drew in air, generating their own small firestorms. Seeing the trees flaring up all orangey and yellow upon the hillsides, and frightened wildlife escaping in front of us, really drove the horror home.
It seemed strange to see a small contingent of single man kayakers having the time of their lives paddling and yahooing through the rapids. As I stood high on an outcrop taking pictures, they hollered that they were Marines taking a well deserved break from fighting fires. They landed at our poshy resort destination where the owners treated us all like royalty. Over trays of tasty hand food and frosty beers, we talked about their hot, dirty job. They said the hardest part was scaling the near vertical terrain, but they were very impressed with the beauty and ruggedness of Idaho and Montana and figured the duty was good.
Our claim handled, we decided to drive on until finding it too dangerous to proceed. Summer cabins had been abandoned and their livestock turned loose to fend for themselves. Another hour brought us to one of the eeriest sights I've ever seen where the Middle Fork meets the North Fork of the Salmon River. Thick smoke hovered complacently in the gorge, leaving a residue of choking ash in the air, reminding me of any number of spooky and foggy English flicks.
Despite all our whining about the smoke, we were anxious to get home to our own 7000 feet with comparatively fresh air and luscious scents. Our ascending mountain road was now blocked and manned 24/7 by forest service personnel who issued passes for homeowner use only. We sighed relief as two fire bugs had been arrested for starting fires, and all other forests, rivers, and recreation areas were closed that August.
There were 27 new fires on Monday morning and 160,000 Montana acres destroyed as we prepared for the road again, this time due north. Lightening caused fires had devastated parts of Glacier National Park, within and without. Manned and maintained by personnel from many states, more fire camps and staging areas with troop carriers and tanker planes were evident. We watched as the copter Bimbi Buckets scooped up water from Flathead Lake to douse outlying threats to cabins and homes. Conditions were imitating southwest Montana as we rudely sent smoke and ash to our Canadian friends.
So, here we go again in 2007, with urban water shortages and Bureau of Land Management warnings that we are in the highest stages of fire restriction. A call from my son, the endangered wildlife specialist at Yellowstone, tells me he spotted a new blaze in the northwest corner of the park and was pressed into service as a coordinator. Numerous fires within the park are being left to burn under watchful eyes as Tim keeps watch over his back country wildlife. Fires do not damage the ecosystem, for trees and plants will return the next year far healthier for their reborn nutrition, but unhappily, the wildlife are on their own.
So, if any of you folks out there are rain dancers, Montana and Idaho could stand a deluge -minus the thunder and lightening of course.
Chief Jodeph pass looking south into Idaho
A fire camp staging area along the Salmon River
Old solitary ewe watching us
Kayaker Marine fire fighters taking a break
The River Of No Return as never seen before