Life is hectic when you’re having fun, right?
We’re jumping around all over God’s Creation like crazy people. It’s the trials and tribulations of ISBU madness! LOL!
SO after regrouping…
We’re getting set to jump back out again to the East Coast late Saturday. A client aircraft stuck in London gained us an extra night in our own beds as we work out delays in aircraft transitions. While we need to get to NY, we’re grateful for the sleep.
We do what everyone does in “stand-by mode” on Sunday morning. We take care of clients, email and surf the internet. About lunchtime on Sunday as I’m helping my son build a Lego menagerie, Sheri runs into the living room and tells me that the Hamilton, MT area is on fire, and it’s bad. After a long, hot, dry spell, I immediately wonder just how bad it is.
Moments later, I realize just how bad it really is. This photograph, taken moments before, arrives in my email. The fire is located in the mountains behind Hamilton, in a remote area of a canyon that we used to live in. It’s rugged, beautiful and heavily forested. And, it’s on fire.
This is distressing because (a) it’s a FOREST FIRE, and (b) we have many friends and my child (and his mother) living in the path of the fire.
While we immediately start to reach out to friends and family to determine who needs help evacuating and to explore the information available to determine how severe the circumstances are, we walk outside our home and realize that you can actually SEE the flames on the ridges burning in the distance.
It should be noted that I don’t currently live in Hamilton, I live 20 miles to the north in a small farming/ranching community. By observation, the firestorm is 200 feet high, fueled by thousands of beetlekill pine trees that explode like Roman Candles when set ablaze. At this point, the fire line is already over a mile long and racing DOWN the mountain toward the highway.
An hour later, we get a call from friends who still live in the Roaring Lion canyons that we originally evacuated a few years back due to forest fires. Some of my readers will remember that I’m talking about an incident where at 1AM we were contacted by Sheriff’s Deputies who arrived to wake us up and help get our most important valuables into trucks so that we could get escorted out of the canyon, the fire raging right behind us.
Luckily, we had a small home in town to run to. Many families were not as fortunate as we were.
Yesterday, a wildfire started near the Roaring Lion trailhead that almost immediately turned the surrounding forest into a fire tornado. Within the space of about 4 hours the fire had spread to over 2,000 acres in some of the most rugged terrain in the Bitterroot. The guess is that it was ignited by a campfire or an errant spark. There were no storms or lightning strikes in the area.
We grabbed gear and headed toward the fire to gain some scope on it’s severity. In many years living in the Bitterroot, we’re accustomed to forest fires. They are a part (terrible, albeit) of life lived in the rugged mountains of Montana. The fire was much worse than we expected. Raging out of control, it quickly spread through canyons as the winds blew it toward Hamilton. Even with several helicopter and aircraft already on scene dumping water and fire retardant, it was clear that they were overpowered by the fire racing through thousands of dead trees that virtually litter the countryside.
In Montana, the US Forestry Service uses a “zero management” program in the local forests. This means that they let Mother Nature take care of herself. Today, once again, we see what happens when you ignore threats to life and limb. While environmentalists will tell you that it’s just “nature’s way”, many would argue that allowing conditions to erode to the point where they endanger local lives and a way of life is just foolish. It’s an argument that local residents have had with US Forestry officials for decades, that seemingly falls on deaf ears.
I’ve personally fought forest fires. I’ve run fire crews in these mountains and I can tell you that when the neglected beetlekill trees ignite, they literally explode setting everything around them on fire. The inferno created by these events causes fire lines to jump like Olympic Athletes from ridgeline to ridgeline in moments. This is particularly frustrating as we realize that those dead trees can be harvested and turned into beautiful cabinetry and flooring which is highly prized by many custom builders throughout this nation. The monies regained in this endeavor could go a long way toward offset responsible land management fees.
After conferring with locals last night, Sheri and I made a bonzai run to Missoula (a large college town to the north) to buy everything we could find to help establish a fallback center for firefighters and first responders. We literally emptied shelves at both Walmarts as we loaded carts with supplies that will allow those retreating from the fire lines (for much needed rest and refueling) the food and showers necessary to help prepare them for their return to the fire lines.
As we drove back down into the Ravalli Valley at almost midnight, we could actually SEE the fire raging almost 50 miles away. Those little spots of red in the photograph below are actually flames almost 100 feet high. It reminded me of those photographs you see of lava flowing down mountains after a volcano erupts. The entire valley glowed eerily from the light of the rapidly spreading fires.
As we got closer and closer to Hamilton we watched as fire truck after fire truck passed us heading toward the fire in the dark of night toward the glow. Sadly, we also witnessed tow trucks towing damaged fire vehicles out of the fire zone.
After we dropped off bins loaded with supplies to the First Responder center, we drove up into surrounding hillsides to look up at the fire as we headed back to the safety of our home. I can’t tell you how blessed it actually felt to be safely removed from the fire zone. The forest fire literally looked like it ringed one end of Hamilton as the fire burned toward some of the outlying communities that are home to many of the Bitterroot’s residents.
This is the forest fire burning behind Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital. There’s a river separating the hospital from the blaze. Thank Heavens for that. At least as doctors and nurses care for the injured, they won’t have to worry about being evacuated themselves.
To say that this fire is burning out of control is an understatement. With many, many local firefighters and law enforcement officials standing the line, it’s clear that these brave men and women will personally face danger and destruction as this fire vents it’s wrath on our homes.
As the sun rises today (Monday, August 1st), many families aren’t as lucky as we once were, as many homes and structures (barns, outbuildings, cabins) have been lost and over 500 homes in the surrounding canyons are evacuated (mandatory) as one of the biggest Type One fires in Ravalli history turns what was pristine forest into a firestorm. Type One teams are quickly arriving and assembling from all over Montana and the region to fight this fire as I type this.
This fire erupted without notice. There was no opportunity for preparation by local residents. Fueled by acres of dead (Beetlekill Pine) trees and 90+ degree heat, it’s like the hillsides simply exploded. Hundreds of animals and livestock are presumed missing or dead as homeowners escorted by Sheriff’s Deputies abandon residences, unable to search for their horses and cattle as the fire races through the canyons.
Returning to the area to seek out lost livestock is impossible. It’s simply too dangerous and cannot be allowed. While it’s a terrible tragedy, the loss of human life is the first (and most important) priority.
This forest fire is currently raging and burning toward Hamilton proper, a town located approximately 5 minutes from the fire’s epicenter.
This morning, some of the downtown areas of Hamilton, MT are covered in a thick layer of ash. As the sun starts to rise today, it simply illuminates the thick red clouds of smoke pouring off the mountains.
It’s going to be a dark day in Montana…
Strong winds have pushed the smoke and ash from the storm all the way to Butte, MT – over 2.5 hours to the east. We’re talking about a distance of 155 miles. Estimates are that the fire will cover 4,000 acres by midday with thousands more acres of forest standing between it and population centers.
With 40 degree temperature drops aiding the first responders, the firefighters are staging to stand between the fire and Hamilton homes.
Many local families are opening their homes to those families displaced by this firestorm.
Remember that the Bitterroot is a small mountain community. 500 evacuated homes is a huge deal, when you consider the baseline population of this valley. Local restaurants have turned their kitchens into supply lines for firefighters and refugees from the fire. Churches between Missoula and Salmon, ID have opened themselves up to serve as shelters for the families fleeing the fire.
As the day begins to bloom, we can only hope that everyone survives this day. It’s hard to think about tomorrow, when today brings such hardship.
To those first responders, brave firefighters and LEOs… we can only hope and pray for their safety as they face this inferno trying to protect and save the citizens of Ravalli.
To the families fleeing the fires, we can only pray that they are evacuated to safety without loss of life or limb.
It’s going to be a very long day, in a string of very long days to come.
To friends and clients:
As we reach out to assist those assisting others in this terrible time, we ask you to be patient. Our deeds and prayers are with all those impacted by this fire and as we work to aid them, we pray for their safety.
We’d ask that you remember Bitterroot families and the brave men and women that stand the line to protect them in your prayers as well.